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What placing LB Dont’a Hightower and DT Alan Branch on PUP means for the Patriots

New England deemed two core defenders physically unable to perform.

Yesterday, rookies, quarterbacks and previously injured players arrived at Gillette Stadium to report for the New England Patriots’ 2017 training camp. Among the latter group were two core defenders, linebacker Dont’a Hightower and defensive tackle Alan Branch, who have both been placed on the physically unable to perform list (PUP).

Let’s take a closer look at that decision and what it means for the Patriots.

The duo has to be activated before cut-down day

A team can place as many players on the PUP list as it sees need to; in New England’s case it has been two. Both Hightower and Branch do therefore not count against the active 90-man roster but also are not allowed to participate in team practices until removed from the list.

This activation could happen at any time until early September’s roster cutdowns and it is almost certain that it will in the two veterans’ cases. However, if a player does not come off the list at that point, he will have to stay on PUP for at least the first six weeks of the season.

New England is playing it as safe as possible with Hightower

In March, the Patriots re-signed the unrestricted free agent linebacker on a four-year, $35.5 million contract. The major concern giving that big a deal to the 27-year old was his injury history: Only once in his five NFL seasons did Hightower appear in all of the Patriots’ games (2013).

Naturally, the team has a vested interest in keeping their team captain as healthy as possible. Placing him on the physically unable to perform list is therefore a smart move to ensure that Hightower is at full strength once he enters training – especially after virtually sitting out all offseason workouts open to the media.

Alan Branch’s unique offseason preparation continues

Ever since arriving in Foxboro during the 2014 season, Alan Branch – who also was re-signed this offseason (two-years $12.0 million) – has been a unique player in terms of preparation. The veteran has sat out all voluntary offseason workouts with the team since his arrival and started the last two training camps on the non-football injury list (which basically works like the PUP list).

However, the approach has worked in the past: Despite the short stints on reserve lists, Branch always returned to practice relatively quickly and established himself as New England’s best defensive tackle the last two years; even though he saw a heavy workload.

The Patriots’ depth options might see more practice reps

With two starters scheduled to start training camp on the sidelines, the depth players behind them will see additional chances to prove their worth – and potentially earn roster spots in the process. At defensive tackle, offseason acquisition Lawrence Guy might benefit from more practice time as might potential practice squad signings Woodrow Hamilton, Josh Augusta and Adam Butler.

The same goes for the linebacker position: Recently signed veteran David Harris is scheduled to see added reps because of Hightower’s absence, while it might also open the door for Elandon Roberts – who wore the communication device in his helmet at times last year –, Jonathan Freeny or rookie Harvey Langi to make an impact in the middle of the defense. Versatile defenders like Shea McClellin or Kyle Van Noy could also see a heavier workload.

Of course, as noted above, both Hightower and Branch could and probably will be activated off PUP soon. Consequently, their stay on the reserve list might not have as big an impact on the rest of the team as a long-term absence would have.

The transactions have no implications on the Patriots' salary cap

Despite likely starting training camp on the sidelines, New England's salary cap space – currently at $13.3 million (per patscap.com) – remains unchanged. After all, all player contracts count against the cap no matter if a player is on the active roster or practice squad, on PUP or injured reserve.

What might happen, though, is that Hightower and Branch miss out on their “per diem” training camp compensation regulated by the collective bargaining agreement (article 23, section 4). However, given the lucratice free agency contracts both players signed earlier this offseason, the $1,900 per week will not hurt the duo that much.