The New England Patriots are in the middle of their 2017 training camp, which has started in late July. Over the remainder of camp, the 90 players currently under contract with the team are now in the process of fighting for spots on either the 53-man roster or the 10-man practice squad.
As we have done throughout the offseason, we will continue to take a look at the men fighting for those few select spots on the 2017 Patriots – and to find out who will and might be asked to help the team defend its Super Bowl title.
Today, we will continue the series with one of the Patriots' defensive standouts.
Name: Alan Branch
Position: Defensive tackle
Jersey number: 97
Opening day age: 32
Size: 6'6, 350 lbs.
2016 review: Defensive tackle Alan Branch entered the final year of his two-year contract with the Patriots coming off arguably the best season of his NFL career. In 2016, the veteran was able to prove that his 2015 campaign was no fluke and that he is indeed among the league's best interior defensive linemen – especially when it came to stopping the ground game.
Branch, who appeared in all 16 of New England's regular season games and all three of the team's playoff contests, was ranked second in run-stopping percentage by Pro Football Focus. Moving incredibly well for a man his size, the Michigan product registered 59 of his season-total 63 tackles in the running game. Eight of his run-stops came for a loss of yardage, one resulted in a fumble.
Not only was the veteran a force against the run, his pass defense was also very good. Branch (via NESN.com) finished the season with a combined two sacks, three quarterback hits and an additional 20 hurries. He also made one of the biggest plays of the year against the pass when he recovered a Dont'a Hightower-forced fumble during the Patriots' Super Bowl comeback victory.
All in all, Branch has had another magnificent season serving as New England's top defensive tackle in terms of consistency, impact and playing time. The former Arizona Cardinals second round draft pick played 627 of a possible 1,044 defensive snaps (60.1%) during the regular season before adding 133 of 187 snaps (71.2%) throughout the Patriots' playoff run.
But Branch's impact went beyond the defensive side of the ball. He also was a regular on special teams and served as a rusher on field goal and extra point attempts. In that role, he played 153 of 449 snaps (34.1%) during the regular season and 32 of 93 during the playoffs (34.4%). He even registered a field goal block during the Patriots' week 12 game against the New York Jets.
Branch's usage in the kicking game is another example of how important and productive of a player he has become for the Patriots; a player that the team could ill-afford to lose – and in November it came close to it: The NFL originally suspended the veteran for violating the substance abuse policy. However, the suspension was completely rescinded shortly after the announcement.
2017 preview: On March 9, the first day of 2017 free agency, Alan Branch re-signed with the Patriots on a two-year, $12.0 million contract. The deal will not only hit New England's salary cap with $4.6 million this season (the ninth highest number on the team), it also makes Branch a lock to be on the defending world champions' 53-man roster for the fourth straight season.
The Patriots will likely employ Branch the same way they used him the last two years: as a starter on the interior defensive line that plays around 60% of defensive snaps, and as a rotational special teamer playing one-third of kicking game snaps. This usage will allow the team to maximize his impact while simultaneously keeping Branch fresh throughout the season – an approach that has worked in the past.
Consequently, it would not be a surprise to see the 32-year old repeat his performances from the 2015 and 2016 seasons. While the signing of free agent Lawrence Guy might have an impact on Branch's snap numbers, he is projected to return as New England's top option at defensive tackle both in terms of playing time and productivity. And it appears as if the team feels similarly or else it would not have invested considerable resources in a player of his age.