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Patriots defensive tackles are a market inefficiency

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The Patriots have their defensive tackles play like one-trick ponies and it’s been working out well for them.

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The New England Patriots have made an active decision not to sign three-down defensive tackles. It’s simply not worth it.

Defensive tackles Alan Branch and Malcom Brown both rank in the top 15 for Pro Football Focus’ run defense rankings by interior defensive linemen. Former Patriots defender Akiem Hicks ranks 13th. New Patriots defensive tackle Lawrence Buy ranks 24th. Vincent Valentine was one of the most efficient rookie defensive tackles in 2016.

These players are unquestionably dominant against the run and the Patriots use them with great success in that capacity, ranking 4th in the league in DVOA against the run this past season.

And yet the star duo of Branch and Brown combined for just 4.5 sacks and 3 additional quarterback hits in 2016. The Patriots don’t ask their defensive tackles to rush the quarterback for a couple reasons.

1. Trey Flowers is simply too good. According to Pro Football Focus, Flowersled the league with 18 total pressured when aligned as a true nose tackle.” Why bother rushing Branch or Brown when a far more efficient and effective player is capable of providing that pressure?

The Patriots also benefit from holding big leads so teams are forced to throw the ball more. This allows the Patriots to be more comfortable playing the lighter Flowers in the middle of their defense with the understanding that the other team will be throwing the ball; Flowers would be far less effective in the middle if the other team wasn’t so likely to throw the ball.

2. Branch and Brown are much cheaper as run-stuffing specialists. The most expensive defensive tackles in the league are Dolphins DT Ndamukong Suh ($19 million per year), Jets DT Muhammad Wilkerson ($17 million), Eagles DT Fletcher Cox ($17 million), Texans DT J.J. Watt ($17 million), Panthers DT Kawann Short ($16 million), Bills DT Marcell Dareus ($16 million), Buccaneers DT Gerald McCoy ($16 million), Jaguars DT Calais Campbell ($15 million), and Jaguars DT Malik Jackson ($14 million). No other defensive tackles make more than $11 million per year. All of these players are expected to impact every possible snap.

Branch, Brown, Guy, and Valentine will play in 2017 for a combined $10.2 million. Sure, they won’t have as much of an impact on passing downs as those other players, but when it comes to constructing a roster, the Patriots would much rather have a strong four-man rotation on the defensive interior and an extra $9 million than have a single Ndamukong Suh.

And when you factor in the Patriots edge defenders, New England is spending $19.08 million per year on both defensive tackles and edge defenders combined (and that is including players like Geneo Grissom, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta, Corey Vereen, and Adam Butler with little-to-no chance of making the team). Suh is averaging $19.06 million with the Dolphins.

So the Patriots are able to flesh out their entire defensive line for less than the price of a solitary super star on the defensive line. Elite run defenders are cheap and the Patriots are comfortable sliding edge player like Flowers inside to compensate against the pass. The money management simply makes sense for the Patriots.

Also, keep an eye out as more and more teams invest in offensive lines and big, bruising running backs. Having a stout defensive front against the run will continue to be more and more important for a team’s overall success.