Patriots add WR Branch, TE Winslow
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots on Wednesday made official the signings of tight end Kellen Winslow, receiver Deion Branch and linebacker Niko Koutouvides and the release of receiver Greg Salas, running back Lex Hilliard and linebacker Mike Rivera.
All of the moves save for the addition of Koutouvides were reported by ESPN.com on Tuesday.
The addition of Branch and Winslow were made to replenish the pass-catching corps in the wake of tight end Aaron Hernandez going down with an ankle injury. He is expected to miss at least a few weeks.
One of the big storylines for Sunday night's key matchup against the Baltimore Ravens is how the Patriots' offense will look without Hernandez. It was stagnant for most of Sunday's loss to the Arizona Cardinals after Hernandez went down.
Branch, 33, was a surprise cut on Aug. 31 when the Patriots trimmed their roster to 53 players, but his return was not unexpected. His stall in the locker room had stayed intact since his release and he was at a team event over the weekend at which he said he'd welcome a return.
He said Wednesday that he anticipated the call that eventually came from the Patriots, adding that his family was the primary reason he chose to return to New England over an offer from a different team.
"First and foremost, my family is first," he said. "Doing things right by my family and put myself in the right position."
A former Super Bowl MVP, Branch had spent six of his previous 10 seasons with New England, and was expected to be in the mix near the top of the receiver depth chart. He'll enter back into that mix now, likely as the No. 4 option.
More on Pats' signings
Just 18 days after releasing Deion Branch for Greg Salas, the Patriots executed a reversal, bringing back the familiar Branch, writes Mike Reiss. Blog
Adding Kellen Winslow was a move the Patriots had to make in order to keep running their two-tight end sets with Aaron Hernandez hurt, ESPN.com's James Walker writes. Blog
"That all depends on the game plan and whatever the coaches have for me," Branch said Wednesday when asked about his role. "I'm going to do whatever they ask of me, whether that be special teams, offense, defense, I'm going to do that. As far as within the offense, that comes with the game plan."
Last season, Branch started 15 games, catching 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns. He played in 76 percent of the team's offensive snaps in 2011.
"Deion has been a great player here for a long time," said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who is an unabashed fan of Branch's. "It's always great to see him back. I was hoping it would happen. There's just a lot of stability -- he's dependable, consistent. We'll see what kind of role he plays."
Winslow was spotted in the Patriots locker room on Wednesday but declined to speak with reporters, saying he had a lot of work to do. His new quarterback met him for the first time Tuesday.
"I'm excited to get out there and practice with him today and I think he's eager to get started too," Brady said.
Winslow's deal with the Patriots is a one-year contract, a source told ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter on Tuesday.
It is no surprise the Patriots had interest in Winslow, a former Pro Bowl player. New England brought him in for a visit two weeks ago and kept him on the short list. There were reports that Winslow had failed his physical with the Patriots at the time of his previous visit, but a source told ESPN.com that was not the case.
"We'll see how Kellen fits in," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said Wednesday. "I've never coached him before, don't have any background with him, but (we) feel like he might have a chance to help us so that's why he's here."
Winslow, 29, brings many of the same skills to the table as Hernandez. He's an athletic tight end with good hands. This also allows New England to continue to run its vaunted two-tight end sets, with Winslow projected to team up with Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski.
Winslow caught 75 passes for 763 yards and two touchdowns last season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He's averaged 73 receptions for 792.3 yards the past three seasons.
He was released by the Seahawks earlier this month. The team originally acquired him in a trade with Tampa Bay in May.
The Patriots might have added the 31-year-old Koutouvides with a special-teams boost in mind, as the team had several breakdowns in that area Sunday.
The veteran linebacker was with the team in training camp and appeared in the final 11 regular-season games last season for the club, in addition to three playoff contests. He played on all four of the core special-teams units -- kickoff coverage, kickoff return, punt coverage and punt return.
The Patriots had a punt blocked in Sunday's game against the Cardinals that was a key play in the game. Two other punts were nearly blocked before that.
Salas, who was inactive during Week 2, was acquired via trade from the Rams on Sept. 1. In exchange, the Patriots shipped St. Louis a seventh-round pick in 2015.
Rivera, 26, was signed to the Patriots' practice squad in November 2011 and found a spot on the 53-man roster this season. He has played a special-teams role in each of the team's two regular-season contests.
The team added Hilliard leading up the regular-season opener and served in a situational fullback role. Hilliard played four of the team's 82 offensive snaps in Week 2.
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