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Pats off to a good start, but is Deion branching out?

The Patriots issued a statement today, allowing Branch a few days to look around the league, but Tom Brady's versatility and a well distributed offensive game have gotten the job done in the first two preseason games.

After weeks of inactivity regarding theDeion Branch holdout, there was evidence of some movement on Friday afternoon when the Patriots issued a statement on that matter:

"The New England Patriots have given Deion Branch permission to seek a trade and negotiate a contract with other clubs. This permission will extend until September 1, 2006."

While the statement certainly doesn't mean the disgruntled wideout will be traded, or re-sign imminently, it did offer some insight that perhaps any negotiations have hit an impasse. Now Branch and his agent, Jason Chayut, will get the chance to seek a better offer elsewhere, which should speed up the process and eventually lead to some sort of resolution.

In the meantime, if Branch doesn't return, the Patriots offense has performed well in his absence thus far. Before getting caught up in who will and won't be catching passes for the Patriots this season, it's important not to forget who'll be on the other end of those passes.

Tom Brady threw touchdown passes to 12 different guys in 2005, tying Brad Johnson's record (2003) for best single-season touchdown distribution. Brady's 26 touchdown passes ranked third in the AFC, but Branch andDavid Givens only caught five and two passes, respectively. The year before, Brady connected with 10 guys for touchdowns, and in 2003, 11 players caught TDs from Brady.

The Patriots offense has remained unpredictable, spreading the ball around a great deal in the first two exhibitions. Brady and Matt Cassel combined to complete passes to 16 different players in last week's game against the Cardinals. If Tom Brady is anything, he's versatile.

Asked Thursday if he thought he could get the ball to anyone on the field, provided the line gives him time, Brady responded with quiet confidence.

"You'd like to think so. You'd like to think that you can," said Brady. "My job is to call the play in the huddle, to go to the line of scrimmage, to identify what the defense is doing, to get us in the best play, and then ultimately when I get the ball in my hands get it out of them as fast as I can and get the ball to someone who is open."

Brady continued by praising the players he does have to throw to.

"The guys that we've had out there have been doing a very good job of that as was shown the other night. Guys like Kevin [Faulk], Reche [Caldwell], Bam [Childress] and Troy [Brown] have been big factors and we need to continue to get those guys the ball," Brady said. "The more they get open the more they get it. That's what we work on in practice. We talk about ways to get open in different coverages and that is the whole idea of practice - try to get everyone on the same page."

Caldwell is at the top of the wideout depth chart right now along with Brown, who's in his 14th year with the Patriots. Brown had only 39 receptions last year but was used mostly as a secondary receiver.

Caldwell has only had three receptions in two preseason games, but he's been adjusting to the offense after arriving from the Chargers. He had a great training camp, however the standout memory for many of him is his dropped touchdown pass from Brady in the Patriots first drive of the preseason at Atlanta.

Brady addressed that pass last week after practice, saying, "The ball got tipped I think at the line of scrimmage and it kind of wobbled and I could see his eyes kind of lit up as the ball was coming to him. It was a much tougher catch than it looked. But he's been making a lot of great catches out here. He's going to have a lot of great catches this year."

To his credit, a couple of days, later Caldwell dismissed Brady's claim that the ball was tipped and placed the blame on himself.

Brady threw for 4,110 yards last year, becoming just the second player in Patriots history to pass for more than 4,000 yards in a season. But as in any team sport, balance is often the key to winning football games. The Patriots ground game averaged only 3.4-yards per carry.

So far this preseason, Brady has been supported by a more productive running game. The Patriots have rushed for 319 yards on 70 carries, averaging 4.6-yards per carry through two exhibition games. Corey Dillon (53 yards, 15 carries) and Laurence Maroney (94 yards, 15 carries) have led the way.

Faulk has also been very productive, catching two passes for 17 yards in the preseason opener and three more for 34 yards against the Cardinals. Faulk converted four of the Patriots eight third downs in the first half of that game, the first two on passes followed by two on the ground. He also had a 25-yard reception, the biggest play of the opening drive.

"You see what kind of a factor he is in our offense with all those third downs," said Brady of Faulk yesterday.

Branch may never return to the Patriots, but when the offense takes the field for its first drive in the season opener on Sept. 10, it will look the same as it has. Assuming things continue as they have, Brady will spread the ball around on short and long passes to a cadre of tight ends, receivers and running backs. The same receivers will be lining up as have been since mini-camp, and the running backs will continue to pound the ball.

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