When I ran the 2006 season reviews, the emphasis was on what the player had accomplished that season. I started this season as the lead blogger for Field Gulls rather than as a mid-season replacement, so have had ample chance to comment on each and every player's performance throughout the season. Therefore, this year's season reviews will concentrate on what the player can do next season. It might be odd, then, that we would start the season with someone that might not contribute at all next season, but that might be more up in the air than you think.
Let's first talk about how Deion Branch was acquired, and a certain pervasive thinking that Branch's recent injury is proof that his was a bad signing. In week 2 of the 2006 season, Tim Ruskell and the Seattle Seahawks traded their first round pick for Deion Branch. Branch was the 12th most valuable receiver in football in 2005, a relatively known commodity, whose skill set matched Mike Holmgren's preferred offense, and who's character and commitment matched Ruskell's preferred roster construction. A big part of the impetus to move Branch was Darrell Jackson, his mounting injuries, and the fact that Ruskell clearly had no desire to retain him, much less extend his contract. At the time of the trade, if one player between Jackson and Branch could be forecast to miss the 2008 season due to injury, it would Jackson. Branch was then signed to a 6 year, 39 million $ contract. The contract is somewhat backloaded, with 13 million guaranteed. Because the team traded a first round pick and then subsequently signed Branch to a relatively large contract, many have transmuted the two moves into one package of moves daunting in their enormity. That is, now that Branch is injured. But, if viewed from the standpoint of when the trade was made, it makes perfect sense. Seattle had an oft-injured #1 receiver on his way out, and no clear backup within the organization. It was one-year removed from the Super Bowl and considered itself a contender with a potentially shrinking window. It ran an offense that could be intimidating for young receivers - a position with more than a few first-round flameouts. The team had cap room to spare, and Ruskell devised a contract that burnt unused cap for the 2006 season, and left a relatively unburdensome cap number for its remainder. The move allowed Seattle to move Darrel Jackson for a 4th round selection, that then allowed them to draft a potential defensive end of the future, or a potential starting guard of the future, depending on which player between Baraka Atkins and Mansfield Wrotto you think Seattle valued more.
Still, whatever the initial motivation for the contract, Branch is indubitably a bust now. He's recorded two disappointing seasons and may now miss the entirety of 2008. Seattle somehow replaced D-Jack with someone even more injury riddled. The ACL injury is especially worrisome for Branch, because agility is Branch's premiere quality as a receiver. Branch is neither large nor capable of fighting for the jump ball, and the day he can no longer make precise cuts, or explode for run after the catch, is the day that he's no longer a viable NFL receiver. If Branch suffered more than a simple torn ACL, suffered further ligament or even cartilage damage, it's probable that his career is over or near over.
And that opens my speculation about Branch not just as a Seahawk, but as an NFL player. Information is, naturally, scarce about the nature and extent of Branch's injury. Without that, everything else is guesswork, but, because Branch's injury was caused by cutting, rather than a severe blow to the side of his knee, it is very likely that he suffered a "clean tear" and did not suffer damage to his MCL or surrounding cartilage. If that's the case, and it likely is, then what matters most for Deion Branch is his ability to regain his sense of his knee. His proprioception, or sense of one's own body in space. After 6 months an ACL transplant is fully healed, but an athlete can take much longer to be able to regain his ability to use the repaired body part properly. Here are some benchmarks to look for that will give us some indication as to how Branch is healing: At 6 weeks the bone has attached to the graft, Branch should be able to walk on his own at this point. Therefore, 6 weeks after Branch has surgery, he should be able to start physical therapy. Any delay is a very bad sign. At 12 weeks "the patient can typically begin a more aggressive regimine of exercises involving stress on the knee, and increasing resistance." At 4 months Branch should be able to run. Assuming he undergoes the treatment in the next few weeks, that should allow for him to participate in training camp. That should be the first conclusive report we get about just how well Branch is doing. Don't worry about reports as to Branch's straight line speed or receiving, all that matters is his ability to cut and run routes.
Deion Branch has a murky and by no means positive outlook for the 2008 season. Any way he contributes would be positive. But though Tim Ruskell has certainly not had the same success signing offensive talent as he's had signing defensive talent, Branch is not a good example of where he's gone wrong (Chris Spencer is a far more appropriate). Still, like the Steve Hutchinson debacle before, a small mistake has blown up in Ruskell's face, and become a lightning rod for criticism. Branch may yet recover, may enjoy a triumphant return not unlike Joey Galloway, but for now, he's little more than sunk cost and a wasted draft pick.