In October 2014, the New England Patriots signed veteran free agent defensive tackle Alan Branch to a one-year contract. Branch, a second-round draft pick in 2007, was a talented yet inconsistent player, whose last team – the Buffalo Bills – released him in August, one day after a DUI arrest. His original signing by the Patriots could therefore be classified as an "under the radar"-deal.
Branch quickly turned into an important cog in the Patriots' defensive machine, playing 11 games in 2014 as a member of New England's defensive tackle rotation. Because of his solid performance on the Super Bowl-winning team, Branch was rewarded with a two-year, $6.6 million contract after the season.
The 6'6" behemoth had a successful season after signing this contract, appearing in all 18 of the Patriots' 2015 games and playing 39.6% of the team's defensive snaps. Rookie Malcom Brown was the only defensive tackle to see more playing time as Branch once again showed his value as a reliable inside defender.
Therefore, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Branch will be back in 2016. But, is it really?
While Branch has been a very good role player since joining the Patriots, it is not a given that he returns next season because of a combination of two facts: his cap hit and his age.
As agreed upon in the deal Branch signed with the Patriots in 2015, the defensive tackle will have a $2.75 million cap hit this upcoming season, consisting of a $1.2 million salary, $1.2 million in bonuses and $350,000 in signing bonus proration. $400,000 of the roster bonuses are due on the first day of the new league year (March 9, 4:00 p.m. ET), which means that the team faces a decision about keeping Branch or letting him walk by not picking up the roster option.
From a financial point of view, New England would save $1.8 million against their 2016 salary cap by letting Branch walk. Because of the monetary benefits such a move would make sense. Furthermore, at 31 years of age, Branch is one of the oldest players on the defense and the combination of age and potential cap savings could lead the team to the decision to hand the interior defensive line keys over to the young guns Malcom Brown and Dominique Easley.
The question is, whether the team feels that Brown and Easley (together with depth options like Sealver Siliga and Chris Jones) are ready to take on those responsibilities. Talent-wise they certainly are but the consistency has not yet been there given their lack of experience and - in Easley's case - injuries. Of course, the Patriots coaching staff has never shied away from given young talented a considerable number of snaps but this could be a dangerous gamble without a veteran back-up as depth.
Therefore, it seems likely that the team elects to pick up Branch's option and keep the defensive tackle another season.
Do you agree with this conclusion or would you rather see the team cut its ties with the veteran to reap the salary cap benefits? Benefits, that could potentially be used to re-sign defensive tackle Akiem Hicks