FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick is always good for a surprise or two on the day NFL teams must trim rosters to 53 players, and this year was no exception.
The release of veteran receiver Deion Branch, one of just three players on the current roster to have started in Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX, headlined the club's moves, while dynamic rookie running back/returner Jeff Demps was placed on injured reserve (it was unclear if it was season-ending or the new shortened IR). Demps came up limping in the fourth quarter of the team's preseason finale Wednesday night.
The other mild surprise was the release of quarterback Brian Hoyer, who filled the No. 2 spot on the depth chart each of the past three seasons.
The release of Branch might not have been a shocker, but it still registered as a surprise, especially after a once-overstocked receiver position had been thinned following the release of Chad Johnson, Anthony Gonzalez, Jabar Gaffney and Donte' Stallworth. It looked like the 33-year-old Branch had outlasted the field to earn a spot as a No. 3 receiver behind Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd, especially given his knowledge of the team's system and his rapport with quarterback Tom Brady.
Instead, the Patriots went with four tight ends on the initial roster -- Rob Gronkowski, Aaron Hernandez, Daniel Fells and Visanthe Shiancoe -- loading up there while going thin at receiver for now. Hernandez's dual skills, which are as much receiver-like as they are tight-end based, might have been a factor in the decision-making process.
One point Belichick often makes is that the 53-man roster at the cut-down deadline is far from permanent, and more moves are likely in the days to come, especially since the Patriots cut to 52 players, giving them an open spot. Saturday at noon ET is the waiver deadline to claim players let go by other teams, and that's also when the eight-man practice squad can be formed.
In addition to Branch, veteran center Dan Koppen was released after nine seasons with the club. Koppen, Branch and Brady were the only players on the roster to start in Super Bowl XXXVIII and XXXIX.
The move with Koppen was expected, as he was playing with reserves deep into the preseason. Dan Connolly (seventh year) and Ryan Wendell (fourth) are the top candidates to fill the void, while Nick McDonald (third) and Donald Thomas (fifth) also have experience there.
For now, Hoyer's release bumps 2011 third-round draft choice Ryan Mallett into the No. 2 spot. Outside of Brady and Mallett, there are no other quarterbacks on the roster. Hoyer's $1.9 million salary was likely a consideration in the team's decision.
The other players released were safety Sergio Brown, guard Derek Dennis, receiver Jeremy Ebert, receiver Jesse Holley, fullback Eric Kettani, safety James Ihedigbo, offensive lineman Matt Kopa, linebacker Niko Koutouvides, linebacker Aaron Lavarias, defensive back Derrick Martin, tight end Alex Silvestro, linebacker Jeff Tarpinian, receiver Kerry Taylor, tight end Tyler Urban, offensive lineman Dustin Waldron, guard Jeremiah Warren, offensive tackle Darrion Weems and defensive back Malcolm Williams.
None of those moves registered as a major surprise, with Ihedigbo -- a six-year veteran out of UMass who played 67 percent of the defensive snaps in 2011 as an injury replacement -- the most notable.
Overall, the release of Branch -- who still could potentially return to the team at some point -- registered as the headliner.
The 33-year-old spent parts of six seasons with the Patriots, registering 312 receptions for 4,152 yards and 24 touchdowns. Branch re-signed with the Patriots in March after catching 51 passes for 702 yards and five touchdowns last season.
Shortly after the news of Branch's cut emerged, he sent the following message to his Twitter followers: "Truly thankful for all the support from everybody. I Love You guys #LovePeaceandHappiness."