Branch's absence leaves Patriots thin to start camp
FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Tom Brady looked at his targets on the Patriots' first day of training camp Friday and didn't see some familiar faces.
"You definitely realize when he's not here," Brady said of Branch, who led the Patriots with 78 catches and 998 yards receiving last season. "You just roll with the punches and try to play with the guys that are out here."
Brady doesn't even have rookie Chad Jackson, New England's second-round pick, or Bam Childress, who spent most of last season on the practice squad before being activated for the final regular-season game, to throw to. Both are on the physically unable to perform list.
The quarterback did have one talented offensive player on the field. First-round draft pick Laurence Maroney, a running back from Minnesota, agreed to terms Thursday night in time for the morning session.
The Patriots released no contract details. Maroney's agent, Ethan Lock, did not return a call seeking comment.
Jason Chayut, Branch's agent, also didn't return a call for comment. Branch is subject to a $14,000 fine for each day he misses training camp. He is scheduled to earn $1.045 million this season, the last of his original five-year contract.
As he did when Branch missed the mandatory minicamp last month, coach Bill Belichick refused to discuss his missing receiver.
"I'll talk about the team and the players that are here this year," he said.
Givens, who was the Patriots No. 2 wide receiver behind Branch, signed a five-year, $24 million contract as a free agent with Tennessee. His old number is worn by Reche Caldwell, who spent the last four seasons with San Diego.
"When I walked out and saw No. 87, I flinched a little," Brady said. "But there's a new guy in that spot, and Reche can take advantage of that opportunity."
Still, it takes time for a quarterback to develop knowledge of and rhythm with new receivers.
"You'd love to be able to build continuity between us," Brady said. "This has to be the place where you build your foundation, you go through your learning curves and you talk through mistakes.
"Even when a guy like Deion is here and Troy is here, there's still things to learn. You put in new offenses and face new defenses and there's new routes."
Brown, entering his 14th season with the Patriots, may have been allowed to practice just once because of his longevity.
"Troy is country club," Brady said with a smile. "I guess when you play like 27 years you can miss a practice."
There's no indication of how many Branch will miss. He was the MVP in the 2005 Super Bowl with 11 receptions in a win over Philadelphia.
He was healthy throughout last year's training camp but sat out all four exhibition games, perhaps to preserve his health. He had missed seven games with a knee injury in 2004.
Branch played all the regular-season and playoff games last year and had seven catches for 99 yards and a touchdown in the opener. In 2004, he had six catches for 105 yards and a touchdown against Kansas City after missing the previous six games.
"When he shows up he'll be ready to go," Brady said. "I'm not concerned about him getting here and getting up to speed because he's probably further along than the rest of us."
Richard Seymour also missed practice. The four-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman is one of 10 players on the physically unable to perform list.
When asked specifically about Seymour, Belichick said, "I'd say almost all of them are in that day-to-day category."
So, it seems, is Branch.
"I've talked to him," Brady said. "He's one of the favorite guys I have on the team so I hope he gets here soon. It's not up to me. I wish it was."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press