Who had Salas over Branch?

There was a play in the Patriots' third preseason game, against the Buccaneers, that produced a similar reaction among reporters in the press box.

It was third-and-13. Quarterback Tom Brady had been taking some hits, and it was an overall frustrating night for the offense. The Patriots trailed 17-7 at the time as Brady dropped back to pass and found receiver Deion Branch -- who had been run into the ground four days earlier by playing every snap but one against the Eagles -- over the middle.

The gain was 13 yards. First down.

The press box reaction: "That's why Branch is making this team as the No. 3 receiver."

Silly us. We should have known it was Greg Salas' job all along.

In the end, that's the thought that resonated here when the Patriots traded a late-round 2015 draft choice to the Rams for Salas on Saturday, one day after releasing Branch, who had seemingly won a fierce training camp competition against Jabar Gaffney, Donte' Stallworth, Chad Johnson and others for the No. 3 receiver spot.

What does Salas have that Branch doesn't?

The obvious answer is youth -- Salas is 24, while Branch is 33.

Salas (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) probably runs better than Branch (5-9, 195) at this point, too.

He also comes cheaper, signed for the next three years at base salaries of $465,000, $555,000 and $645,000. Branch was due to earn $925,000 this season on a one-year deal and already had received a $250,000 signing bonus.

As for where Branch has the edge, that third-and-13 play in Tampa is a shining example.

It starts with his rapport with Brady, which dates back to 2002. While he's not as explosive as he once was, he remains a crafty route-runner. He's also a big-game player.

We'll find out more about the intriguing Salas soon enough, so for now maybe the best way to sum it up is that the Patriots are going with potential over the known commodity.

Salas, the second-year receiver out of Hawaii, has 27 career NFL catches on his resume and reportedly had fallen out of favor with the new Rams coaching staff. Branch has 501 regular-season grabs and is a former Super Bowl most valuable player.

Who knows? Maybe it will turn out to be another stroke of genius, similar to the Wes Welker acquisition of 2007.

At the time, many in the NFL thought the Patriots overpaid for Welker, but the club had a vision of what Welker could be in its attack. Maybe Josh McDaniels' time with Salas in St. Louis last season has him thinking similar thoughts.

It also should be noted that there is nothing stopping the Patriots from re-signing Branch in the coming days or weeks.

But for now, it's Salas over Branch.

Just like we all thought.