Beyond the Big 3: Deion Branch

Much of the attention around pending Patriots free agents has been paid to Wes Welker, Aqib Talib and Sebastian Vollmer, three of the team's critical starters. But the Patriots have a number of other free agents who could hit the open market on March 12, and we'll use this space to review them and recap their 2012 season.

Player: Deion Branch

Position: Wide receiver

Key 2012 stats: 10 games played, 4 starts; 16 catches, 145 yards

Playing time (offense): 482 of 1,240 (38.9 percent; third most among WR's)

2012 season recap: Branch bounced back and forth from the roster in 2012, twice being released and ultimately re-signed. The dependable veteran said that he had other suitors following each release, but ultimately chose to return to the team he's had his most success with. With Julian Edelman down, Branch finished the season as the team's third receiver, a smaller role than that which he held in 2011. He had just 16 catches in 2012 and did not score a touchdown for the first time in his career. Branch's physical skills are not what they once were, though his extensive knowledge of the offense and trust with Tom Brady made him a viable fill-in target.

Outlook: At 33, Branch is nearing the end of his career, but he didn't suggest that retirement was imminent at any point last season, so he's likely to look for work in 2013 and beyond. In 2011 he finished with 51 catches, a sign that he has the physical skills to continue to be productive in the NFL. His production in 2012 diminished in part due to his role, health and the focus of the Patriots offense, which featured a diverse set of targets for Brady to throw to. He stressed last season the importance of his family when making the decision to return to the Patriots on two occasions, so it appears that for him to sign with another team it would have to be with a franchise located in a place that seeing his family during the season is still practical.

Projection: Re-signed on a 1-year, $1 million deal. The Patriots have a need at wide receiver, as Brandon Lloyd is the only established receiver (excluding special teams ace Matthew Slater) on the roster entering free agency. Branch knows the offense, is a strong locker room presence and can help mentor any young receivers the Patriots may add this offseason. He'll likely have to fight for a 53-man roster spot come the regular season, but bringing him back on a modest contract would be a low-risk maneuver for the team.