When Alan Branch first signed with the New England Patriots in October 2014, six of the defensive tackles he now calls his teammates were still in college.
But Branch hasn’t looked like the old guy since then. The 32-year-old by way of the Michigan Wolverines, Arizona Cardinals, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills hasn’t looked like he’s been in the NFL for a decade, or like he’s biding out his time staying in it.
Branch has looked like a player who’s playing his best football – and that’s been a 6-foot-6, 350-pound problem for opposing backfields.
The 2015 campaign proved to not be an outlier for Branch, who started 15 contests and collected 35 tackles, one sack, three batted passes and two forced fumbles by Week 17 before adding another sack by the AFC Championship Game. He returned in 2016 to start all 16 games of regular-season action, notching another three starts up through the playoffs.
Branch’s volume and production did not trend the way they should have. Not for his age, not for his size, not for his position.
“It's hard to measure the disruptive plays, but he’s certainly got his share of those,” head coach Bill Belichick said of Branch on a January conference call, via Patriots.com. “He's played very well for us in the running game. He's given us a presence in the pass rush of a long, physical player in the middle. That's all been really good, and he's played more plays so all of that is good. How unique is it? I mean, yeah, guys that weigh 350 pounds and are athletic and long like he is — I mean, they don't grow on trees.”
Most don’t stay on the field for too long, either.
Branch finished 2016 having logged a combined total of 760 defensive snaps — a career high — while being accompanied by the likes of 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown, rookie third-rounder Vincent Valentine, as well undrafted free agent Woodrow Hamilton on the New England interior. There may have been a generation gap between them, since Brown, Valentine and Hamilton all were in middle school when Branch entered the league. There wasn’t, however, many A- and B-gaps left open between them.
Even when No. 97 was the lone defensive tackle in the lineup.
New England’s defense conceded 3.9 yards per rush and let only six of 368 attempts turn into touchdowns by the time the regular season was over. The youth and experience in the thick of things had meshed on the field and off by then.
“I think they're closer in age to my oldest daughter than they are with me,” Branch told reporters in February ahead of Super Bowl LI. “Those guys are awesome. I feel like they're keeping me young. We're always joking around and having a good time. I really feel like we're a close-knit group.”
New England’s group grew when the versatile, 27-year-old Lawrence Guy was added to the depth chart in March and another class of rookie free agents followed in April. But it’s grown clear that Branch is as much a part of the plan now as he’s ever been. The Patriots wouldn’t have inked him to a two-year, $12 million contract on the same day the new league year began if that wasn’t the case.
Branch ranked second among all NFL defensive tackles in Pro Football Focus’ run-stop percentage last season. When the 10-year veteran made first contact with opposing ball-carriers, he ended up tying the Cleveland Browns’ Danny Shelton as PFF’s seventh-most impactful interior lineman in yards per carry allowed — 1.8.
Ndamukong Suh, Calais Campbell, Leonard Williams, Kyle Williams, Aaron Donald and Damon Harrison were the names to check in ahead of Shelton and Branch in that particular category from Pro Football Focus. And they have 16 Pro Bowls, five first-team All-Pros and seven second-team All-Pros altogether on their resumes.
Branch has none.
That provides some context to what he’s done since passing age 30. The former second-round pick has gone from rotational journeyman to established starter over that span. His 49 tackles last season signified a career best. His eight tackles for loss led the team. His 1.5 sacks, three batted passes, forced fumble and blocked field goal also left a mark through the 16-game slate.
So did the 14 stops, half-sack and fumble recovery he picked up in the postseason.
Leaving marks is what Branch will look to continue to do as he begins his 11th training camp next month. He’ll report for it as the fourth-oldest member of the 90-man roster, and he’ll again be the elder statesman on an interior that nets an average age of 24.
Based on how 2016 went, that shouldn’t be much of a problem — at least for the Patriots.
Branch is enjoying his renaissance.