Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 12/13/12

FOXBORO, MA - NOVERMBER 21: Deion Branch of the New England Patriots reacts after teammate in the second half against the Indianapolis Colts at Gillette Stadium on November 21, 2010 in Foxboro, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Deion Branch‘s spot in the Patriots’ locker room was left intact even after the team released him back on Nov. 17. The unattended, and untouched, slot, stationed just to the right of quarterback Tom Brady, was a sign that Branch’s days in New England might not yet be finished. The Patriots announced the long-awaited return of the reliable veteran on Wednesday, a move that, while inevitable, also couldn’t have come at a better time. Since Branch was released nearly a month ago, primarily due to a lingering hamstring injury, the Patriots have watched their receivers drop like overthrown passes. First, receiver Greg Salas was claimed off of waivers. Then, Julian Edelman, who was finally thriving in the offense, suffered a season-ending foot injury in the win over the Dolphins. And finally, after Donte Stallworth had seemed to solve the Patriots’ receiving issues, the 32-year-old receiver suffered his own season-ending ankle injury. There had been some thought given to Branch’s possible return around the same time Stallworth was signed, but nothing came to fruition. And that was probably for the best. Now, Branch is fully healthy again and the Patriots could use him more than ever. With so little depth at receiver, and tight end Rob Gronkowski still on the sidelines, the presence of an experienced and reliable option like Branch could prove vital for the offense as they make their playoff push. Branch only caught nine balls in the seven games he played with the Patriots earlier this season, but his final game before the release was his most productive, totaling four catches on a season-high eight targets. There’s no question that Branch isn’t the same caliber receiver that won a Super Bowl MVP in 2005 or even caught 51 balls last season. But while he may not possess the same speed or agility that at one time made him a No. 1 receiver, Branch is still a very dependable third receiver in this offense. And Brady should be extremely happy to get one his all-time favorite targets back on the field with him. Wide receiver depth will continue to be an issue for the Patriots even after the addition. With Branch, the Patriots now have four healthy receivers on the roster — the fourth being special teams all-star Matthew Slater. Still, Bill Belichick doesn’t seem too pleased with that being the extent of his arsenal heading into the postseason, which may have been a reason behind the Patriots’ waiver claim on Bengals receiver Armon Binns over the weekend. So, don’t be all that surprised if the Patriots make at least one more move on the outside before the end of the season. Jabar Gaffney‘s still available you say? But before getting caught up in too much speculation and conjecture, the immediate reality is that Branch is back and it’s likely for the long haul. He’s also about as good an option as you’re going to find on the free-agent market right now. So, rejoice in his return and hope that there aren’t any more injuries on the horizon before season’s end. Because the Patriots are already paper thin at the position and are running out of legitimate options. Have a question for Luke Hughes? Send it to him via Twitter at @LukeFHughes or send it here.
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