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Branch's absence leaves Patriots thin to start camp

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady looked at his targets on the
Patriots' first day of training camp Friday and didn't see some
familiar faces.

Former Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch is holding out for a new
contract, Troy Brown took the morning practice off before returning
in the afternoon and David Givens is playing for the Tennessee
Titans.

"You definitely realize when he's not here," Brady said of
Branch, who led the Patriots with 78 catches and 998 yards
receiving last season. "You just roll with the punches and try to
play with the guys that are out here."

Brady doesn't even have rookie Chad Jackson, New England's
second-round pick, or Bam Childress, who spent most of last season
on the practice squad before being activated for the final
regular-season game, to throw to. Both are on the physically unable
to perform list.

The quarterback did have one talented offensive player on the
field. First-round draft pick Laurence Maroney, a running back from
Minnesota, agreed to terms Thursday night in time for the morning
session.

The Patriots released no contract details. Maroney's agent,
Ethan Lock, did not return a call seeking comment.

Jason Chayut, Branch's agent, also didn't return a call for
comment. Branch is subject to a $14,000 fine for each day he misses
training camp. He is scheduled to earn $1.045 million this season,
the last of his original five-year contract.

As he did when Branch missed the mandatory minicamp last month,
coach Bill Belichick refused to discuss his missing receiver.

"I'll talk about the team and the players that are here this
year," he said.

Givens, who was the Patriots No. 2 wide receiver behind Branch,
signed a five-year, $24 million contract as a free agent with
Tennessee. His old number is worn by Reche Caldwell, who spent the
last four seasons with San Diego.

"When I walked out and saw No. 87, I flinched a little," Brady
said. "But there's a new guy in that spot, and Reche can take
advantage of that opportunity."

Still, it takes time for a quarterback to develop knowledge of
and rhythm with new receivers.

"You'd love to be able to build continuity between us," Brady
said. "This has to be the place where you build your foundation,
you go through your learning curves and you talk through mistakes.

"Even when a guy like Deion is here and Troy is here, there's still things to learn. You put in new offenses and
face new defenses and there's new routes."

Brown, entering his 14th season with the Patriots, may have been
allowed to practice just once because of his longevity.

"Troy is country club," Brady said with a smile. "I guess
when you play like 27 years you can miss a practice."

There's no indication of how many Branch will miss. He was the
MVP in the 2005 Super Bowl with 11 receptions in a win over
Philadelphia.

He was healthy throughout last year's training camp but sat out
all four exhibition games, perhaps to preserve his health. He had
missed seven games with a knee injury in 2004.

Branch played all the regular-season and playoff games last year
and had seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown in the opener.
In 2004, he had six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown against
Kansas City after missing the previous six games.

"When he shows up he'll be ready to go," Brady said. "I'm not
concerned about him getting here and getting up to speed because
he's probably further along than the rest of us."

Richard Seymour also missed practice. The four-time Pro Bowl
defensive lineman is one of 10 players on the physically unable to
perform list.

When asked specifically about Seymour, Belichick said, "I'd say
almost all of them are in that day-to-day category."

So, it seems, is Branch.

"I've talked to him," Brady said. "He's one of the favorite
guys I have on the team so I hope he gets here soon. It's not up to
me. I wish it was."