With news breaking today that New England Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch faces a four-game suspension due to a violation of the league’s substance abuse policy, the team will be without one of its most consistent and most experienced defensive linemen. Thus, the suspension is a big blow for a Patriots defense that has struggled at times this season.
That being said, both the team and the player, who reportedly is appealing the suspension, need to look forward. After all, it is "on to New York" for the Patriots. Therefore, we will take a quick look at what the four-game suspension means for New England, its defense and Branch himself.
The Patriots’ backup defensive tackles need to step up
No defensive tackle has played as many snaps this season as Branch. The 31-year old has been on the field for 388 of the Patriots’ 626 defensive snaps (62.0%) through the first ten games of the season. Naturally, replacing this sort of output will not be easy for the team. Vincent Valentine will likely be the player called upon to start alongside Malcom Brown in the team’s regular fronts, while fellow rookie Woodrow Hamilton will serve as the top backup.
Malcom Brown will feel the loss of Branch
Branch’s fellow starting defensive tackle Malcom Brown, who has played only four defensive snaps less this year, will feel the effects of the suspension – not just in terms of playing time. Without Branch, the Patriots lose their best early-down interior penetrator. Consequently, teams can now put more focus and manpower on blocking the second best option – Brown – at the point of attack.
New England likely will add a fourth defensive tackle
Once the suspension starts, the Patriots will have only three defensive tackles on their roster. While the Patriots often use their edge defenders on the interior, the team will still need to add a fourth option to temporarily fill Branch’s spot on the active team. Since having lost Anthony Johnson to the New York Jets, New England has no defensive tackles on their practice squad. Ergo, the two options of adding a defensive tackle are either via free agency or a practice squad signing from another team.
Free agency options include veterans Markus Kuhn and Terrance Knighton. Both have been with the Patriots this summer but ultimately were unable to make the team. Given their experience in New England’s defensive system, the two might be intriguing options to add. The same goes for former Patriots Joe Vellano (Atlanta Falcons), A.J. Francis (Washington Redskins), or Kelcy Quarles (Indianapolis Colts) – all of which are currently on practice squads.
The Patriots and Branch have to hope the appeal will not take long
Until the appeals process is over, the suspension – no matter how long it will ultimately be – will not kick in. With the Patriots having only six more regular season games left to play, the team has to hope that the appeal does not take longer than two weeks, otherwise Branch’s availability for the playoffs might be in danger.
Branch will lose around $1.1 million – and maybe a new contract
Miguel of patscap.com already did an amazing breakdown of the salary cap implications of a possible four-game suspension. While Branch will lose around $1.1 million in salary, playing time incentives and roster bonuses, the team will gain $280,000 in cap space (the salary for four weeks). Branch, who is in the final year of his contract, has also undoubtably hurt his value to the team. This, in turn, might affect the chances of the Patriots ultimately re-signing him.
Branch has to be very careful now
Via the NFL’s Policy and Program on Substances of Abuse, a player enters four-game suspension territory due to a "violation following imposition of a 4-week fine". That means that Branch’s next transgression will lead to a 10-game suspension for the use of marijuana or a banishment when tested positive for any other forbidden substance.
There might be a small silver lining
While Branch’s suspension hurts New England without a doubt, one optimistic point of view exists. With him having played 62.0% of the team’s defensive snaps, some rest might actually help keeping the 6’6, 350 lbs. behemoth fresh in the long term. Come playoff time, this might pay dividends.