In a simple, two-sentence release delivered on Friday afternoon to the media and to Branch and agent Jason Chayut, the Patriots essentially confirmed that contract negotiations with the four-year veteran are at an impasse and that the two sides might have to seek an alternative resolution to their differences.
"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," read the entire statement. ESPN.com has learned that the permission to deal with other teams lapses at 4 p.m. ET on Sept. 1.
Reached by phone, Chayut said he had no reaction to the news, which he had received just a short time earlier.
"It's so labored for the players and for me talking about it," Patriots quarterback Tom Brady said Thursday, two days before the Patriots' third exhibition game, at home against Washington. "Hopefully, this situation comes to an end. We have our full team here and we put guys on the field, the most capable guys that we have."
Brady has previously made it clear he wants Branch back and expected him to return.
While the move by the Patriots is surprising, it is also reflective of the state of discussions between the two sides. There has been virtually no meaningful dialogue for weeks and Branch, the team's leading receiver in 2005, remains out of camp and is being fined at the rate of $14,000 per day during his absence.
Just because the Patriots have granted permission for Branch to shop his services does not mean a trade will be consummated. Even if Branch reached an agreement with another team on a contract, that club would still have to meet New England's trade demands. It is not known what the Pats would want in return for their No. 1 receiver.
In his first public statement on the holdout, Branch earlier this week told a television station that he was "pretty sure everything's going to work out." They may now have to be worked out with another team, since neither New England nor Branch have indicated any sign of softening their current negotiating stances.
It is believed that, at some point in the offseason, the Patriots offered two extension proposals: a three-year deal worth $18.75 million with $8 million of that guaranteed, and a five-year extension at $31 million, with $11 million in bonuses.
Branch, 27, is scheduled to earn a base salary of $1.05 million in 2006, the final season of the original five-year contract he signed as a second-round choice in the 2002 draft. And the base salary is only that high because Branch performed well enough to trigger an "escalator" in the contract that raised his compensation by $500,000.
Team officials indicated as far back as March that securing an extension with Branch was a priority, but the two sides have been unable to strike a deal and talks seem at a dead end. The former Louisville standout would be eligible for unrestricted free agency next spring without an extension, provided he reports for enough games in 2006 to gain an accrued season in the league's pension plan.
Branch is coming off a career year in 2005, when he had 78 receptions for 998 yards and five touchdowns. For his career, Branch has 213 catches for 2,744 yards and 14 touchdowns. He has appeared in 53 games and logged 42 starts. He earned most valuable player honors in Super Bowl XXXIX when he tied a title game record with 11 receptions, netting 133 yards.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.