The New England Patriots decided to leave DT Alan Branch in Foxboro this week and to face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with just two pure defensive interior players in Malcom Brown and Lawrence Guy. The decision is linked to “performance issues” and Branch’s lack of production on the field.
Branch had been the heart of the New England run defense over the past two seasons as the Patriots finished ranked 10th and 5th in run defense DVOA. This year, the Patriots have plummeted down to 22nd, the team’s lowest ranking since 2013.
The Patriots don’t have the necessary depth at defensive tackle with Vincent Valentine on the injured reserve with a knee injury, so Branch needs to get back on track in a hurry or else the run defense will continue to struggle.
The decision to leave Branch at home is similar to the Patriots decision to make Jabaal Sheard a healthy scratch in the middle of the 2016 season, lighting a spark under Sheard to rise back up as a solid rotational player for the postseason. Hopefully Branch can make the same return to form.
And if not, this is likely the last year for Branch in New England. The Patriots gave themselves an out in their contract with Branch with a $1 million roster bonus due March 14th, 2018, the first day of the next league year, resulting in just $1 million in dead cap space.
Every game that Branch is inactive costs the veteran $40,625 in gameday bonuses and affects his chances of earning his playing time incentives. According to PatsCap, $875,000 of Branch’s $1.25 million playing time incentives were considered “likely to be earned,” and since Branch played a hair over 60% of the snaps in 2016, he likely has incentives at 50%, 60%, and 70% of the defensive snaps, although I haven’t been able to confirm the exact milestones.
Branch is playing 30% of the snaps in 2017, or half of his contributions from 2016, with a cap hit of $4.6 million, which is not what the Patriots were expecting out of this new deal from the 32-year-old defensive tackle.
Other older defensive tackles around the league that have comparable cap hits are playing much more than Branch. Chargers 32-year-old DT Brandon Mebane is playing 59% of the snaps with a $4.5 million cap hit. Broncos 32-year-old DT Domata Peko is playing 41% of the snaps with a $3.3 million cap hit. Jets 31-year-old DT Steve McClendon is playing 40% of the snaps with a $3.9 million cap hit.
There is still plenty of time for Branch to turn around his season, but assuming the Patriots defense plays their average number of defensive snaps, Branch will have tallied just 25% of the snaps through five games. He would have to play roughly 60% of the remaining snaps to hit a 50% playing incentive, 75% of the remaining snaps to hit a 60% playing incentive, and 90% of the remaining snaps to hit a 70% playing incentive.
In other words, he’ll have to immediately bounce back to 2016 levels by week 6 in order to make some of his lower incentive tiers.
Can he do it? A lot of his struggles in 2017 look like poor technique, poor effort, and poor strength. He’s not expected to be a dominant pass rusher, but if he can’t hold his ground against single teams, never mind double teams, then he doesn’t really have a role in the New England defense.
And I get Branch’s concerns that he won’t be able to prove that he is capable unless he’s given more opportunities on the field, but clearly the coaching staff isn’t seeing what they need to on the practice field to warrant additional playing time.
Jabaal Sheard was playing roughly 75% of the defensive snaps prior to being benched against the Seattle Seahawks and staying home for the next game against the San Francisco 49ers. He finished the season as a 50% player. I would expect that Branch returns to the field in week 6 as a 40% player for the rest of the season.