Patriots' price to pay

More Patriots: The backup plan for Tom Brady

FOXBORO, Mass. – If Deion Branch follows through on the promise he has made privately to a couple of his friends, the question may not be how long it takes him to get ready for this season.

Rather, the question may be over how much season is left.

Branch, the New England Patriots' top wide receiver and Super Bowl XXXIX MVP, has missed all of training camp while holding out for a new contract or at least the promise that the team won't put the franchise tag on him after this season. He has told at least two friends he is willing to sit out part of the year and play only the minimum amount of time necessary to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

"People don't understand how committed he is to this," a source close to Branch said. "He's not going to come in until he gets something he feels that is fair."

Of course, "fair" is a relative term and this kind of brave talk about holding out for part of the season has melted plenty of times when players realize that walking away from a good chunk of $1 million is harder than you think. Branch is also staying in Boston these days, fueling the notion that he'll report any day now.

That said, Branch has shown greater resolve than most people expected. He has racked up approximately $250,000 in fines for his holdout so far (if the Patriots choose to enforce the language of the collective bargaining agreement), but if Branch's holdout continues into the season, an NFL Players Association source said the union would likely advise him to show up for the final nine weeks.

The real issue in this mess is what impact Branch's holdout will have on the Patriots. Specifically, how will it impact quarterback Tom Brady?

The Patriots, who have never paid a premium price for a wide receiver, are going through a drastic transition at the position this season, particularly with a quarterback who puts such an emphasis on timing. David Givens, the No. 2 receiver from last season, was allowed to leave as a free agent. Likewise, receivers Tim Dwight, Andre Davis and Bethel Johnson are gone.

That means that, including Branch, five of the top six receivers from last season aren't around. The only returnee is 35-year-old Troy Brown, who was third on the team with 39 catches last season. Throw in the fact that rookie Chad Jackson, the team's second-round pick, has missed almost all of training camp with a hamstring injury and you have the makings of a serious problem for the New England offense.

For his part, Brady has been caught between trying to convince the Patriots to give Branch a new contract and playing the role of good soldier. Brady was quoted in Sports Illustrated last month as supporting Branch's desire for a new deal, but he has since downplayed the comments.

How Brady reacts later, after a couple of games of throwing to guys he isn't familiar with, figures to be interesting.

"Working with a guy you've known for a long time isn't any problem at all," Brady said. "I could go a year without throwing to Troy Brown and I would know everything about how to throw him the ball. I know how he likes to run routes, his body language, when he's setting up a pattern."

But …

"It's different with guys you haven't worked with," Brady said. "It can take a long time to get to know what they like to do. Everybody is different, but there's really no set timetable."

As for coach Bill Belichick, he has downplayed the long-term problems of Branch's holdout. However, Belichick had a revealing comment about NFL passing attacks when asked to assess a rookie linebacker on his squad earlier this week.

"No linebacker in college football sees what we see on a weekly basis in the passing game in the [NFL]," Belichick said. "They might see it against a team or two, or maybe even their team might be a good passing team, but the level of the passing game in the National Football League – the formations, the routes, the skill of the players – is a significantly higher level and more. Not necessarily complex, but there is a lot more happening and it happens a lot quicker. And the mistakes are magnified because the quarterbacks and the receivers are all better."

Of course, the converse of Belichick's statement is that young receivers – or receivers who have missed significant time – are likely to have problems as well.

As for Branch, at this point he is willing to accept an agreement from the team that it will not place the franchise tag on him. Branch isn't necessarily looking for top-echelon money, but he believes his value is in line with Colts wide receiver Reggie Wayne. Wayne received a six-year, $40 million contract in the offseason after playing out the final year of his original five-year contract.

Included in Wayne's deal is $23 million over the first three years of the contract. While Wayne has achieved more than Branch from an individual statistical standpoint, the comparison is flawed because of the difference between the two teams in terms of style of offense.

But Branch clearly trumps Wayne in the most important comparison: two rings for Branch, zero for Wayne.

New England's unstated position is that the organization does not like to pay a premium price for a wide receiver. The Patriots have offered Branch, who has one year remaining on his original five-year deal, a three-year extension to his contract. In essence, Branch can make $19 million over the next four years.

While there is logic to that position, there's a harsh reality about what could happen to New England's offense if Branch isn't around.