Head Coach Bill Belichick and Director of Player Personnel Scott Pioli have a philosophy about the type of players they want on their team.
They don't want combine phenoms. They don't want guys who can run like the wind, jump like a kangaroo, bench press CMGI Field and look great in their uniforms if they can't play.
They want guys that love the game and play a hard-nosed style. They want guys like Troy Brown — football players.
At 5-9, 191 pounds, Anthony "Deion" Branch fits that mold.
"We like his style of play," Pioli said. "Bill and I have talked about it a lot; we like aggressive football players. We like a tough style of football and Deion certainly fits that mold. He's a tough, feisty player."
According to Pioli, the Patriots look for more than just numbers. They look for people who love to play football and they like to ask themselves, "What does he do to show you how important it is to him?"
"Everyone calls them intangibles, but we believe these things are very tangible," he said. "Leadership, makeup and personal behavior are all things we look for in a player."
While his size has always been an issue to many coaches and scouts, it never has been to Branch. He has been a talented, productive wide receiver. In only two seasons at Louisville, Branch hauled in 143 passes for 2,204 yards and 18 touchdowns. Belichick said before the draft that he wanted to find skill position players that can get the ball into the end zone. Branch did plenty of that at the collegiate level.
As for his lack of size, Branch refuses to use it as a crutch.
"That's life, I can't do anything about it," Branch said when asked if he was overlooked because of his height. "I could have been 6-3 and still have been taken at the same spot."
Branch's position coach at Louisville believes his height will not be an issue in the NFL.
"He's not the prototypical pro receiver," Cardinals wide receiver coach Jim McElwain said. "Big receivers have become the big thing so his height is the one thing that scouts didn't like about him. But he plays a heck of a lot bigger than he is. All he does is catch it every time we throw it to him and make big-time clutch plays."
According to McElwain, it was no coincidence that while Branch was at Louisville, the Cardinals won two Conference USA championships and played in the Liberty Bowl each year. He was team MVP and the focal point of a high-powered offense in which Branch teamed up with quarterback Dave Ragone, who is slated to be one of the top rated quarterbacks for the 2003 draft. The Cardinals offense was geared toward getting the ball in his hands as much as possible. They used motion to get him single coverage, let him run the ball (similar to how Charlie Weis works overtime to get the ball to Brown) and even had him throw it on occasion.
Branch's versatility was one of the main reasons the Patriots showed interest.
"We saw a guy who can line up in the slot, can line up outside, can play multiple positions as a receiver and can also return punts," Pioli said. "So he's a guy we think has very good special teams ability and can contribute in a number of ways."
Branch said he is willing to do anything the Patriots want him to do. "If they want me to be the gunner, I'll say, 'Yes sir, I'll be the gunner.' If they want me to block field goals, I'll block field goals. I know it's my job being a rookie that I'm going to be playing some positions other than just wide receiver and punt returner."
McElwain, who believes the Patriots will have a hard time keeping Branch off the field next season, also thinks he will have an impact in the locker room.
"The coaches will fall in love with him because of his heart and desire," he said. "Deion is a coach's dream, he's a true student of the game and loves to compete. He wanted to know everything about the offense, even when he was the decoy. All you have to do is ask him and he will do it."
McElwain added that Branch's infectious personality will effect the other players and coaches. "Even when you're tired and beat after the third practice of the day during camp you look forward to seeing him in the meeting room," he said.
So now Branch will take his game to the NFL where he will try to prove to those scouts they were wrong about his height. He will try to emulate other small wide receivers he looked up to as a college player. "Guys that aren't scared, they have a love for the game and are passionate," he said.
Guys like Brown.
Hopefully, if all goes well, when the Patriots offense takes the field next season, Branch can look across the field at Brown instead of looking up to him.
Strengths: Big play receiver. Plays bigger than his 5-9 frame would suggest. Does what he has to do to make plays. Has an infectious personality and should be a good locker room presence.
Weaknesses: Branch's size must be a concern. At 5-9, 191lbs., Branch needs to improve his route running ability. Will also need to improve strength and ability to fight through jam at line of scrimmage.
Personal: Played two years of junior college football at Jones County College before attending Louisville. Also performed in both indoor and outdoor track at Louisville. Competed in the 60-meters, 100-meters and 4x100 relay.
Comparable NFL Player: Troy Brown, Patriots — Similarly well-built but small. Good open-field runner after the catch. Good quickness and speed.
What they're saying...
"Improving their wide receiver depth was a concern, and Branch has been productive despite a lack of height. Good receiver and returner. Very tough catching over the middle. Quick, tough and highly competitive. Not the greatest size in the world, but he is a little bit like Troy Brown in some respects."
Joel Buchsbaum, author of Pro Football Weekly's 2002 Draft Preview.