Player Spotlight: Deion Branch
by Christian Peterson - Associate Editor, Fanball.com
Thursday, August 19, 2004
Over the past several years, Troy Brown has been the most consistent receiver for the Patriots. He's all of 5-10 and weighs 190 pounds, but he's a quick, possession-type receiver, very dependable and a game-breaking threat at times. His name has become synonymous with the "short guy with good speed and great hands who you don't want to get stuck with on fantasy draft day" receiver.
In 2004, despite the fact that Troy Brown is healthy and still on the roster, the role of Troy Brown will be played by Deion Branch. Branch, at about 5-9, 195 pounds, has developed into a deep receiving threat with good speed and excellent hands. Sound familiar? And now, Branch has stolen Brown's starting spot in the Patriots' offense.
Deion led the Patriots in receptions (57) and yards (803) in 2003. He was relatively consistent, averaging almost 54 yards per game, however he caught a mere three touchdown passes and surpassed the 100-yard plateau just once.
In need of help at wide receiver in nearly all of my fantasy leagues last year, I distinctly remember that Branch was one of the top-ranked available free agent receivers all year, but he was never gobbled up because, after all, how much good does 50 yards and no scores do for you, fantasy wise?
None, obviously, but it brings up two interesting questions for the 2004 season: 1) In today's fantasy landscape, when scoring seven-to-eight touchdowns makes you a top-15 fantasy receiver, can the diminutive Branch, with just five touchdowns in two years, ever reach that plateau? 2) Is Deion Branch the best wide receiver in football who doesn't deserve a spot on anyone's fantasy team? The answers are: 1) No, but not for the reason you might think, and 2) Maybe. Possibly. Probably.
First, I'm going to disprove the whole "small receivers can't score touchdowns in the NFL" myth. I'll borrow from Fanball's patented Third Year Wide Receiver theory, modify it slightly, and analyze only receivers who stand 5-10 or less. I'll call it the Really Good Tiny Receivers Who Broke Out in Their Second Year as an Impact Player (RGTRWBOTSYIP) theory. Catchy, isn't it?
I've defined an "impact year" as the first year in which a player started at least 10 games, or in which he caught at least 20 balls (in several cases, the receiver languished on the bench for two or three years before seeing any significant action whatsoever). To qualify for my analysis, he had to be 5-foot-10 or less (even though 5-11 guys with names like Coles, Price, and Chambers have put up pretty good numbers as well).
Impact Year 1
Player/Vitals Receptions Yards Touchdowns
1. 5-10, 195 2. 5-10, 190 3. 5-9, 180 4. 5-10, 185 5. D. Branch 21 63 54 31 57 222 895 872 441 803 0 5 3 4 3
Pretty lame numbers, huh? Note the basic similarities in the numbers of these pocket-sized receivers in their first years as an impact player, and Branch's statistics. You may be surprised to learn the identities of several of these players. Players 2-4 all appear in most people's top 15 fantasy receivers for 2004. Without further ado…
Impact Year 2
Player Name Receptions Yards Touchdowns
1. Tr. Brown 2. D. Mason 3. S. Smith 4. S. Moss 41 73 88 74 607 1128 1110 1105 6 9 7 10
You surely recognize smallish receivers like the aforementioned Troy Brown (the pioneer of my theory), Steve Smith of the Panthers, Santana Moss of the Jets, and Derrick Mason of the Titans, who I was surprised to learn is only 5-10. These players increased their production in impact year two by an average of 380 yards and five touchdowns. Not coincidentally, Smith and Moss were simultaneously in their second year as an impact player and their third year in the NFL.
So, statistically and physically, Branch appears to be a perfect candidate to be enshrined as the next member of the RGTRWBOTSYIP Club, right? He's on track for almost 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns, right? Well then why has he not been drafted in a single Fanball mock draft, and why does he barely even register in our top 50 wide receivers?
Because, unlike the rest of the players on the list, he is not the main scoring option for his team. That honor goes to, well, nobody, on the Patriots. Tom Brady is so adept at running the Pats' spread offense, he makes depending on any of his weapons nearly impossible. Nine Patriots caught 14 or more balls in 2003, six of those nine had 28 or more receptions, but nobody registered more than Branch's 57 catches.
In goal-to-go situations, only David Givens (3), Daniel Graham (3), and Christian Fauria (2) caught more than one of Brady's 13 passing touchdowns. Five other receivers, including Branch, caught one apiece. If you are worried that Corey Dillon will suddenly change the Patriots' playcalling in the red zone, we debunked that myth already, here. If anyone was to distinguish themselves from Brady's group of wideouts in the red zone, we'd bet on the taller (6-0) David Givens, not Branch.
Although you may see the occasional 10-catch, 148-yard, one-score performance from Branch (his numbers from the 2003 Super Bowl), you will also have more than enough four-catch, 50-yard flameouts to drive you to drinking (if you aren't already) every Sunday when you watch Branch sink your fantasy hopes.
Deion has the potential to reach the 1,000 yard mark if he truly has tucked Brown securely away in his rear-view mirror, and if Brady continues looking his way five or six times per game, but we also can't assure you that Branch will get any more looks inside the 10 than he did last year. Which means he would have to score a whole lot of touchdowns on longer passes to make him worth your fantasy while.
Then again, if he does join the exclusive RGTRWBOTSYIP Club, remember - you saw it here first.