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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Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

Browns better than Patriots in 2020? Former NFL player makes bold claim

The New England Patriots have spent much of the last 20 years at the summit of the NFL -- the most successful franchise of this century. Over that same time, the Cleveland Browns have been one of the league's worst teams, with only a single postseason appearance since 2000.

Could these teams begin to switch places in 2020?

Last season was supposed to be the Browns' return to the spotlight, and the playoffs. Expectations were high for quarterback Baker Mayfield, star wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and an up-and-coming defense. Instead, Cleveland got off to a horrible start in 2019, losing six of their first eight games, including a Week 7 loss to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. 

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Despite all that unfolded in Cleveland last season, many experts are still high on the Browns' chances in 2020. In fact, one of them is even willing to predict the Patriots will be worse than the Browns.

“When you look at those two teams and the difference in the trajectory of what we feel they’ll be, I believe that the Browns will be a better football team than the New England Patriots this year," ESPN NFL analyst Ryan Clark said on the "Get Up" morning show earlier this week. 

"I believe that the Browns young quarterback (Baker Mayfield) will play better than the young quarterback in New England. And when you put all of these things together, that leaves Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots on the outside of the playoff picture and (Browns coach) Kevin Stefanski and the Cleveland Browns in.”

Oddsmakers don't agree with Clark. 

The Browns are underdogs to reach the playoffs with +137 odds at the DraftKings Sportsbook, while the Patriots are expected to make the postseason at -177 odds.

It's also hard to trust the Browns until they show the mental toughness required to play football into January. Bad penalties, turnovers, poor coaching and other avoidable mistakes have plagued the Browns for many years, and last season was no different.

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Another factor working against the Browns is their division. The AFC North is not a joke.

The reigning division champion Baltimore Ravens went 14-2 last year and should again be a top Super Bowl contender. The Pittsburgh Steelers have been a playoff team for much of the last two decades, and they'll be aided by the healthy return of veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who missed most of 2019 due to injury. The Cincinnati Bengals are the worst team in the division, but selecting Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow with the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft has renewed hope in Cincy.

It's not inconceivable for the Browns to be better than the Patriots in 2020. The Patriots will have plenty of challenges, too, most notably adjusting to a new starting quarterback. New England's schedule also is among the toughest in the league, and the defense lost several key players in free agency.

Still, it's hard to bet against a Belichick team, especially when the other team in the conversation is the Browns. The smart money in this debate is with the Patriots.

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

Patriots' Stephon Gilmore hard at work in new offseason training video

NFL teams have not been able to conduct normal offseason workouts, rookie camps and other activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but players are still finding ways to stay in shape and prepare for the 2020 season.

That includes New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who recently worked out with former NFL defensive back Dre Bly, who's currently the cornerbacks coach for the University of North Carolina football team.

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Check out some footage of Gilmore's workout in the tweet below:

Gilmore arguably is the Patriots' best player following quarterback Tom Brady's departure in free agency. In Pro Football Focus' recent ranking of the top 50 players gonig into the 2020 season, Gilmore was the only Patriot to make the list.

The veteran cornerback is coming off back-to-back seasons of first team All-Pro selections, and in February he was named the AP Defensive Player of the Year Award winner for the 2019 campaign.

The Patriots saw a lot of veteran players from their defense leave as free agents this offseason. Luckily for New England, its secondary remains one of the best groups in the league, and Gilmore's presence as the sport's premier shutdown cornerback is the primary reason for that.