It's indisputable that Tim Ruskell's trade for Deion Branch has been a disappointment. What remains unexplored is if the trade should be a disappointment. Branch hasn't been great and a first round pick seems like a steep price, but is it really? If Seattle had instead drafted Branch with that pick instead of trading for Branch, what would the expected return be?
Using the model provided by Advanced NFL Stats, we can make a reasonable guess. Branch would have been the fourth wide receiver drafted. The fourth wide receiver drafted's career averages about 530 yards per season and 4.7 seasons starting. Branch has averaged 599 yards per season over 32 starts and 33 games played. That 33 is of a possible 46. Branch was traded on September 11, 2006 and not capable of playing until week three. Depending on how you figure it, Branch has either been Seattle's primary starter for two seasons or for three seasons with time lost due to injury.
The other matter is the contract. Branch received a six-year, $39 million dollar contract to sign with Seattle. That has made him one of the top ten most expensive wide receivers in football the last two seasons. Branch has not played like a top-ten receiver, and even among those just paid like top-ten receivers, he's a clear step behind even Bernard Berrian. Seattle hasn't really suffered the cap hit. They've been active in free agency and not too strapped to sign a player they want. Branch's contract could have forced Seattle to unload Peterson and draft Curry, or could have taken Seattle out of the Chris Canty race and forced them to sign Colin Cole, and those are real consequences that hurt, but they are also hypothetical. They assume Seattle filled Branch's position some other way and that other way was much cheaper. And that might be stretch. 2007's free agent class was weak and even Kevin Curtis cleaned up signing a six-year, $32 million contract.
Ruskell traded Seattle's first round pick and signed Branch to a mega-contract because he thought he was signing a number one wide receiver. Maybe. Maybe Ruskell traded Seattle's first round pick and signed Branch to a mega-contract because he thought Branch was better and would be better sooner than a wide receiver Seattle could take in the 2007 draft. He thought Seattle had the cap space and that Branch was better than any other wide receiver available in the 2007 free agent class. Except for arguably Kevin Curtis, he was. And Ruskell thought Seattle needed that wide receiver to contribute in 2006 and needed that wide receiver to make Darrell Jackson expendable in 2007. If that's the case, and I think that is the case, then the Branch deal, if by no means a smash, has been a success.