Great Patriots Debates: Deion Branch vs. Danny Amendola

Great Patriots Debates: Deion Branch vs. Danny Amendola

As we've blasted through Great Patriots Debate after Great Patriots Debate these last few weeks, the "RECENCY BIAS!" outcry has flowed steadily (and sometimes in all caps) on social media. 

It was warranted when we batted around the idea of the best first-round pick in franchise history and John Hannah trailed Ty Law for about 23 hours during our 24-hour poll. Hannah, maybe the greatest guard in NFL history, surpassed Law by a percentage point just before voting closed. 

What people have seen most recently has to have a real impact on these kinds of discussions. No doubt. But nostalgia can be just as potent. The Kevin Faulk vs. James White debate pitted against one another these two phenomena. So will today's. 

It's a straightforward ask: Deion Branch or Danny Amendola? 

How you interpret that question is up to you. Would you rather Branch's career or Amendola's? If the Patriots could have had only one, which receiver would you choose? If you had a game to win and you could only pick one at the height of his powers, who would you run out there? 

Different approaches to these questions are what make your responses interesting. Variety is the spice of life and all that. But before you decide, consider the following. 

Branch is one of Tom Brady's all-time favorite receivers. Bill Belichick once had to ban Brady from throwing to Branch during training camp because the defense couldn't stop them and Brady wouldn't stop looking his buddy's way. In his first run with the Patriots (2002-2005), the second-round pick out of Louisville was dynamite — particularly in the postseason. 

Branch had 43 receptions as a rookie in what was a disappointing 2002 season for the team, but he then followed that up with 57 grabs for 803 yards en route to a Super Bowl in 2003. In that game against the Panthers, he caught 10 passes on 13 targets for 143 yards and a touchdown. He also had the catch that set up Adam Vinatieri's game-winner that night, yet it was Brady who came away with the game's MVP award. 

The next year saw Branch limited to nine regular-season games because of injury, but again he was a force come playoff time. He reeled in four passes for 116 yards and a score (to go along with 37 yards on the ground and a rushing touchdown) in New England's AFC title game victory in Pittsburgh. Two weeks later he lit up the Eagles for 133 yards on 11 catches and was named MVP.

Coming off a second consecutive Super Bowl, Branch went into 2005 and only built on his reputation as Brady's go-to option with 78 catches on 125 targets for 998 yards and five touchdowns — all career-highs to that point. The Patriots didn't get through the Divisional Round of the playoffs that year, but it wasn't because they were waiting on contributions from their top receiver. Branch had eight catches for 153 yards at Mile High in a 27-13 defeat.

Branch held out the next season and was eventually dealt to the Seahawks for a first-round pick, a transaction that came with it a tampering charge against the Jets. The Patriots flamed out in the AFC title game that year with a receiving corps that was in desperate need of some measure of dependability, and Branch caught 53 passes in the first of his four-plus year stay in Seattle. 

He was reunited with the Patriots in 2010 — less than a week after the team jettisoned an unhappy Randy Moss — and immediately became a factor, catching nine passes for 98 yards in his first game back with Brady. Branch caught five touchdowns for the Patriots that season and caught five more in 2011, helping the Patriots back to the Super Bowl as a complementary piece to the tight end tandem that rolled through the NFL that year.

Branch's exceptional quickness — he ran a 3.76-second short-shuttle at the combine in 2002, one of the best ever recorded in Indy -— and football IQ helped make him an impossible cover, especially in his first go-round with the Patriots. Belichick was asked to compare Malcolm Mitchell to Branch, both of whom experienced success as rookie wideouts in New England, a few years ago.

“It’s hard to really compare anybody to Branch,” Belichick said at the time. “Branch had a rare quickness. I mean, what’d he run, like a 3.7 short-shuttle? You just don’t see that. Deion was very, very quick and very smart. I’m not saying there aren’t other smart receivers, but Deion was really a smart receiver and very, very quick. We’ve had quick guys like Troy [Brown], and Julian [Edelman], and Wes [Welker], guys like that. But it wasn’t Deion, they didn’t have Deion’s kind of quickness.

“They may have more size than Deion, they were probably a little better after the catch in terms of bulk, and strength, and breaking tackles and all that, but Deion’s short space quickness was pretty good. I don’t think we’ve had a guy with his kind of quickness. I don’t know that too many other teams have. They might have been quick but not with all of the other things, but when you put Deion together with his hands, his instincts — which were very good — his overall intelligence and his short space quickness. He was not the biggest guy, not the strongest guy but he was hard to cover. His quickness was tough to cover. It’d be hard to compare anybody to him because he was pretty unique with the level of quickness that he had.”

Amendola might not have had Branch's level of quickness, but he was certainly quick enough to be considered one of the most indispensable playoff performers in Patriots history. 

Signed in 2013 when there was some uncertainty as to whether or not the Patriots would be able to retain Welker, Amendola — who came to New England with durability concerns — was hurt almost immediately. He played through injuries for the duration of that season to catch 54 passes for 633 yards and two scores. He played in every regular-season game in 2014 but was heavily managed, catching just 27 passes for 200 yards that year. He was healthy enough come playoff time to submit some of the biggest moments during that team's run, though. Amendola was on the receiving end of Edelman's double-pass touchdown in the Divisional Round against the Ravens, and he caught a fourth-quarter score against the Seahawks to help Brady complete that comeback for Lombardi No. 4.

In 2016, Amendola's numbers were down again in the regular season due in part to injury; he racked up 23 catches and 243 yards in 12 games. But he was good to go in the Super Bowl. He caught only two passes in his team's first two playoff games, but against the Falcons he was one of the lInchpins to the 28-3 comeback effort, snagging eight passes for 78 yards, a touchdown and a critical two-point conversion. 

When Edelman went down with a torn ACL in the 2017 preseason, the team leaned on Amendola (just as they did when Edelman dealt with injuries in 2015). Amendola caught 61 passes for 659 yards in the regular season and was a monster in the playoffs, going for 112 yards against Tennessee, 84 yards and two scores against Jacksonville, and compiling 152 yards on eight catches in the Super Bowl loss to Philadelphia. 

"Danny's a tremendous competitor, made some big plays for us," Belichick said following the conference championship that year. "I thought, as usual, he handled the punts great, and he had the last punt return that really set us up for the final touchdown.

"Danny's such a good football player. When you look up ‘good football player’ in the dictionary his picture is right there beside it. It doesn’t matter what it is. Fielding punts, third down, big play, red area, onside kick recovery — whatever we need him to do. He’s just a tremendous player, very instinctive, tough, great concentration. He had some big plays for us today."

Amendola finished with 230 catches, 2,383 yards and 12 touchdowns in 69 career regular-season games with the Patriots. That doesn't stack up with the numbers Branch produced in his regular-season career in New England: 328 catches, 4,297 yards and 24 touchdowns in 89 career regular-season games with the team. 

But Amendola's postseason production — 57 catches for 709 yards, six touchdowns and a two-point conversion in 13 games — matches up pretty tightly with what Branch did in January and February numbers-wise. Branch had 56 catches for 852 yards and five total touchdowns in 14 playoff games with the Patriots.

Given the injuries he played through, his special-teams contributions, and what he got out of his 190-pound frame, Amendola has an argument as one of the franchise's toughest wideouts in recent memory as well as one of its most clutch. But for every big postseason game Amendola had, Branch has an answer. And there's that Super Bowl MVP trophy that'll help Branch's cause in any "Who ya got?" conversation. Both have a pair of rings that might not exist were it not for them. Both have more than their share of memorable playoff moments. 

The numbers are the numbers, but how you remember those moments will more than likely inspire your choice in this debate. That seems to be how these things have gone over the last few weeks, which is exactly what has made them such entertaining pre-camp filler.

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10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

10 takeaways from Patriots vs Titans: Isaiah Wynn a wall in pass protection

NASHVILLE – The product popped last week when the Patriots played the Lions in their preseason opener. This week in Nashville? Kinda messy.

The explanation for that is simple. Very few of the team’s best players took part on either side of the ball.

Among those on the DNP-CD list were: Tom Brady, Phillip Dorsett, Stephon Gilmore, Sony Michel, James White, Jonathan Jones, Devin McCourty, Rex Burkhead, James Develin, Elandon Roberts, Kyle Van Noy, David Andrew, Marcus Cannon, Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason, Michael Bennett and Lawrence Guy.

“A lot of the guys that practiced a lot (during the week) didn’t play tonight,” said Bill Belichick. “Guys that didn’t practice as much played a lot tonight so I think we had a really good evaluation of everybody.”

What was our evaluation? Come with! We’ll show you!
The Patriots left tackle position is going to be in unbelievably capable hands with ISAIAH WYNN. Playing in a game for the first time since blowing his Achilles last preseason, Wynn was a wall in pass protection, showed great feet in getting blocks at the first level and then looking for work further downfield and seems to just lock defenders up.  

I asked Wynn, “How did you feel you did out there?”

“Good,” he said. Then, as if remembering he better sound too satisfied, he added a beat later, “I still have plenty of things to work on though.”

The pace of the game was – at times – excruciating. It was a little bit of everything. An early PI challenge by the Titans (they lost as rookie Joejuan Williams was found to be on the right side of the law on a third-down pass breakup). A couple of injuries to Patriots (Derek Rivers hurt his knee and, sadly, it looks like it’s going to be a while for him. Again. Shilique Calhoun got dinged but appeared fine in the locker room). But more than anything else, it was the penalties. The Patriots had 12 called on them and the Titans had 10. That is attributable to less-experienced players on the field in some cases but the most significant penalty sequence of the night came late in the first half. First, tight end Lance Kendricks placed a Titan in a headlock when he was pass-protecting for Jarrett Stidham. The holding call resulted in a safety. Next, after the free kick, the Patriots had 12 men on the field defensively.

Speaking of defense, there’s a real collaboration going down on the Patriots sidelines. It appeared Steve Belichick called defensive plays in the first half and Jerod Mayo called them in the second half. Also, Patrick Chung – in uniform but not playing – was active in helping coach the secondary on a down-to-down basis, signaling in plays and seeming to help make calls.

Getting back to that free kick I mentioned? Jake Bailey, the Stanford rookie took it. And he hit it almost to Pluto, about 65 yards in the air. On Bailey’s only punt of the night, he hung it 54 yards and there was no return. Ryan Allen, God bless him, he’s not going down without a fight. He had a punt of 57 yards and dropped one of his two inside the 20. Bailey was the holder on field goals and PATs and Stephen Gostkowski missed his only attempt, a 40-yarder.

In two preseason games, Jakobi Meyers has caught 12 of the 14 passes sent his way for 151 yards and two touchdowns. And the balls he’s catching aren’t short little slants and outs. They are crossers in traffic and downfield passes as well. After watching him during practice and in two games, it’s clear he’s the real thing and he deserves to be a starter. Honestly, when N’Keal Harry returns from whatever’s ailing him and Josh Gordon joins the team and begins practicing, I’m going to be really interested to see if they can exceed what Meyers is doing. And not just exceed it for a time. Do it every day the way he has. It’s a fascinating story. During the game, longtime NFL personnel man Jim Nagy, who runs the Senior Bowl, stated plainly on Twitter that Meyers was “the best contested ball catcher in last year’s draft.” 

A great week of practice by Braxton Berrios was followed up by a modest game. He was targeted once and that pass was picked by Logan Ryan. The throw from Brian Hoyer didn’t have a lot of zing on it but Berrios was kind of floating upfield on his route as well which made it easy for Logan Ryan to undercut him for the pick.

Rookie running back Damien Harris worked his ass off with four catches for 23 yards and 14 carries for 80. He’s not an edge-of-your-seat kind of runner who’ll make spectacular moves but his meat-and-potatoes style is a nice fit. Reminds me a little bit of Benjarvus Green-Ellis.

I had no idea the Patriots had a player named Calvin Munson. But when No. 48 showed up on about eight straight plays defensively with pursuit, pressure or brilliant form tackling at linebacker I made sure to check. He was everywhere. And, mind you, that was against the Titans first offense.

How important to the team is Matt Slater? Both times the Patriots had a player spend an extended period on the field with an injury, Slater was the person who went out with the medical staff to – I’m assuming – lend some support to the player. Whether he was assigned that job or just took it on himself, I don’t know but nothing happens without the OK of Bill Belichick. He’s not going to sign off on guys just walking on the field whenever they want if someone is hurt. This is a role for Slater. Between this assignment and seeing Chung as almost a player-coach, it’s cool to see how empowering Belichick can be as a boss with some of his players.

Through two preseason games, Jarrett Stidham has performed exactly as advertised. He makes some incredible throws – a back-shoulder touchdown to shortish receiver Damoun Patterson was like a drone strike – and he gets a little skittish and can make some sketchy decisions. He had two near-picks that could have been taken the distance the other way.

Those throws and decisions can definitely be coached out of him if he’s willing. But the touch and accuracy? That’s a gift. I also liked his instincts on a pair of scrambles that picked up first downs. The issue he’ll deal with – as Jimmy Garoppolo did – is that the starters are better than the scrubs and if you find yourself on the field with them, they move faster and hit harder so spin-o-rama escape moves that work in August can put a quarterback in a sling in October.

The Patriots are off Sunday but back at it again on Monday and Tuesday getting ready for their first home game of the preseason. There are no more open practices this season so that party is over.

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Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Matthew Slater on Josh Gordon's return: 'Football is No. 2'

Despite playing a sport that typically values third-down efficiency over empathy, Matthew Slater has no problem speaking up to be the voice of compassion inside the Patriots locker room.

Josh Gordon's reinstatement by the NFL on Friday is a complicated issue. How was it determined that Gordon is well enough to play? Is football what's best for him? How will the Patriots provide him with support when he returns?

But Slater broke it down more simply following his team's preseason win over the Titans in Nashville: When it comes to Gordon, football isn't what's most important right now.

"We are excited,” Slater said of Gordon's return. “I’ll say this: Football is number two. We want to see him first and foremost doing well as an individual, doing well as a man, and we want to support him however we can. We’re just going to take this one day at a time, which is all any of us can do. And we’ll see what tomorrow brings and then we’ll let the day after that worry about it when it comes around."

Gordon was a big-play threat any time he was on the field for the Patriots last season. He played in 11 games and led the NFL in yards per reception (18.0). He was suspended late in the year for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and though his NFL rights have remained with the Patriots -- they signed his restricted free-agent tender this offseason -- he hasn't been with the team for months.

Bill Belichick pointed that out in a statement released Saturday.

“For the past eight months, Josh’s situation has been entirely a league matter," Belichick's statement said. "When Josh returns to our program, we will evaluate the entire situation and do what we feel is best for Josh and the team."

Slater emphasized the point that he and others will welcome Gordon with open arms.

“I think having support is always a good thing, no matter who you are, no matter what life has brought your way," Slater said. "I think support is good, and hopefully he finds that he has support here. I think that’s really all I can say about it now. What’s good, what’s not good remains to be seen.”

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