FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Taylor Price is entering just his second NFL season. Deion Branch is starting his 10th. The goal for both New England Patriots wide receivers is the same.
They want to show coach Bill Belichick they can be counted on to produce.
“This is a league where you’ve got to prove yourself each and every week,” Price said. “So I’m going to keep going out there, keep getting better and keep making plays.”
The third-round draft choice from Ohio was active for just the final regular-season game last year but made progress by studying the playbook, watching film and practicing. Now he’s trying to earn playing time in a corps of veteran wide receivers — Branch, Wes Welker and Chad Ochocinco.
Branch had a much better rookie season than Price after being drafted in the second round in 2002. In the season opener that year, the Patriots’ next game after the first of their three Super Bowl victories, Branch caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
He led the team in receptions in two of the next three seasons. But, in the midst of a contract dispute, he was traded to the Seattle Seahawks before the 2006 season.
He was reunited, though, with Tom Brady when the Patriots acquired him last season. He caught 48 passes in 11 games in his return.
Still, he knows he’s competing for playing time.
“I never let my guard down,” Branch said Thursday. “We’ve got a bunch of young guys. These guys are playing great. I just go out there trying to do everything I can to possibly help the team and do my job. Whatever Tom asks me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Price’s entry into the NFL hasn’t been as smooth.
He missed nearly two weeks of organized team activities last year because Ohio had a late graduation, on June 11, and players weren’t permitted to join their NFL teams before graduation.
That set him back. He finished the season with just three catches.
But in the first exhibition game this year, a 47-12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, Price caught five passes for 105 yards and a touchdown. He was hit hard after fielding a punt midway through the fourth quarter, then missed the next game and didn’t return to practice until Monday.
Now he’s hoping to play Saturday night at the Detroit Lions.
“Yeah,” he said, “can’t wait.”
Toughness, the ability to shake off hard hits, is one way he can gain Brady’s trust.
“You’re going to take some hits as a receiver going across the middle,” Price said, “get back up, go on to the next play. That creates that confidence in that quarterback, the chemistry that they need that you’re going to go across the middle, you’re going to go get those balls no matter what the situation is.”
Brandon Tate and Julian Edelman also are competing for playing time at wide receiver. But Price is heavier than both, at 6 feet and 205 pounds.
“You’ve just got to go out there and just play, just let your athletic ability take over, your natural instincts as a football player take over and don’t think too much,” Price said. “It’s easy to think a lot in this offense — ‘Oh, what do I got here? What do I got there? My adjustments here and there.’ If you just know yourself, be prepared and just go out there and let it all hang o ut just so, you should be all right.”
Branch didn’t find the playbook hard to learn as a rookie. But the adjustments he had to make once the teams were at the line of scrimmage were challenging. And after that first season, he didn’t want to get too comfortable.
“That’s the proving part,” Branch said. “Just let them know, ‘Hey this is why you drafted me. I’m here for you all. I’m here to help this team win.’ “
Sometimes, Belichick finds unorthodox ways to motivate players.
On Wednesday night, he showed them the movie, “The Fighter,” about boxer Micky Ward of Lowell, Mass. Ward attended, and talked with the team.
“I’m a big boxing fan, so I truly enjoyed meeting this guy,” Branch said. “For this guy to come in and share some of the things about what went on in his life in growing up, some of the adversity that he’d been through, that was great.”
Belichick wanted to give his players an enjoyable break from the daily grind of practices and meetings. Players even munched on popcorn.
“That was a real highlight because we’re so nutrition-conscious here,” Belichick said. “When we threw the candy out, that was pretty popular.”
His own favorite movie snack?
“Put me down for Junior Mints,” he said.
Guard Logan Mankins said, “It was nice to hear from Micky … how to always keep fighting, keep going when you’re down and you don’t think you can do it, you can still get through it.”
As professionals, though, players shouldn’t need extra motivation, he said.
Players like Price have enough just trying to get meaningful playing time after spending nearly his entire rookie season as a spectator.
“One year in that system, I feel pretty good by now,” he said. “I learned a lot and I think I’m ready to make that next jump.”