Saturday, September 2, 2006
Pacific Trade Winds? Seattle still interested in Branch
By Len Pasquarelli
Rebuffed once in an attempt to acquire New England Patriots holdout wide receiver Deion Branch, the Seattle Seahawks may take another run at trying to complete a trade, with their continuing interest in the four-year veteran fueled by continuing concerns about their own receiving corps.
The Seahawks, along with the New York Jets, had fashioned a contract agreement by Friday with Branch agreeing to a six-year, $39 million deal that would have paid him $13 million in combined bonuses and about $23 million in the first three years of the contract. Neither team, however, could satisfy the demands of the Patriots, who are seeking first- and middle-round choices as compensation, and the 4 p.m. ET deadline set by New England passed without a trade.
But there were indications on Friday night and early Saturday that the Seahawks remain very interested in Branch and could try to resuscitate a potential trade. The reason: The defending NFC champions will begin practice for next week's regular-season opener with lingering question marks in their passing game.
Wide receiver Darrell Jackson, arguably the Seahawks' best receiver, has twice in the past year undergone surgery to his left knee. After missing 10 games in 2005, his durability has come into question. Jackson will return to the field on Monday, but he hasn't practiced since last February, in preparation for Super Bowl XL, and coach Mike Holmgren acknowledged the team will have to "be smart" in easing him back into action.
In addition, tight end Jerramy Stevens will probably miss the first month of the season because of a torn meniscus in his left knee. Stevens is an often-inconsistent pass-catcher, as evidenced in the Super Bowl, but he does provide Seattle with a big presence in the middle of the field. Wide receiver Nate Burleson, signed as a free agent in the spring, is still assimilating the offense, and is more of a deep threat who may not be the best fit in a West Coast-style passing game. Always-reliable wide receiver Bobby Engram, forced to play outside in 2005 because of injuries, is far more effective working out of the slot.
Branch, whose obvious displeasure with his current New England contract has not overshadowed the fact that he is regarded as a solid locker room presence and hard worker, could be the prescription for what ails the Seahawks' passing game right now. But it will probably mean that Seattle would have to offer more than the second-round draft choice floated in the first round of trade discussions.
The fact that Friday's deadline passed without a deal will not preclude Seattle from trying to rekindle the trade talks. The deadline was an arbitrary one, established only by New England officials, and there was nothing officially binding about it.
Whether or not the Seahawks make another move on Branch, the wide receiver plans to proceed with the two grievances filed on his behalf by the NFL Players Association on Friday afternoon.
The first grievance, which likely will be heard within a week by an arbitrator agreed to by the NFLPA and the league Management Council, contends that the Patriots breached a verbal agreement to trade Branch before Friday at 4 p.m. if they received a "fair and reasonable" proposal for him from another team. The second grievance, which falls under the purview of "special master" Stephan Burbank of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, charges that the Patriots did not negotiate in good faith.
Conventional wisdom around the league is that, even with the outcome of such non-injury grievances more difficult to predict in recent years, Branch will have a difficult time prevailing in either case.
Barring a trade, there certainly seems to be no imminent or easy resolution to Branch's status right now. The Patriots retain his contractual rights and Branch, entering the final season of his original rookie deal and scheduled to have a base salary of $1.05 million for 2006, has told friends he intends to remain away from the team until the final six games of the season. He could report for those games, earn a season toward the league pension plan, and become an unrestricted free agent next spring.
Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Patriots were able to fine Branch $14,000 per day during his absence from camp, and he has accumulated more than $500,000 in fines. With the start of the season, New England can no longer impose daily fines, but can withhold Branch's game checks.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here .