By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — In a 2016 season that began with some uncertainty at the defensive tackle position, Alan Branch stepped up and gave the team some much-needed stability.
Branch’s 10th season in the National Football League was one of his best, as the mountainous defensive tackle consistently clogged up the middle of the line of scrimmage and played a significant role in the Patriots’ No. 3 run defense. He played in every game all season and even came up with a big play in the Super Bowl, recovering the fumble caused by Dont’a Hightower’s game-changing strip sack in the fourth quarter.
Branch was certainly a strong contributor to the Patriots’ No. 1 scoring defense in 2016, especially against the run. But because Branch is not the kind of elite defensive tackle that would command top-of-the-market money like the Dolphins’ Ndamukong Suh or the Bills’ Marcell Dareus, he is certainly a candidate to stick around with the Patriots in 2017 and beyond – but they’ll likely have to give him a raise.
OTHER PATRIOTS FREE AGENTS: Dont’a Hightower | Martellus Bennett | Logan Ryan | LeGarrette Blount | Michael Floyd
Here’s the rundown on Branch’s free-agent situation:
What did he make in 2016? Branch earned a base salary of $1.2 million in 2016, plus an $800,000 roster bonus and $400,000 in incentives – totaling his real money earnings at $2.4 million.
What’s his value on the open market? Branch ultimately loses a lot of value due to his lack of ability as a pass rusher compared to his ability to stuff the run. A reasonable comparison for him as a player could be veteran Arizona Cardinals nose tackle Corey Peters, who will carry a cap hit of about $3.6 million in 2017. The 32-year-old Branch is also four years older than Peters and may not be able to land more than a one or two-year deal from any team.
What’s his value to the Patriots? They may be able to ultimately withstand the loss of a run-stuffing interior defender like Branch, but they would have been in trouble on defense if they lost him at any point during 2016. The Patriots have the seventh most cap space in the league at just over $62.9 million, according to Spotrac. So while they do have some bigger, more expensive moves to make, the Patriots could certainly afford to fit Branch into their budget for another year or two.
Why wouldn’t the Patriots keep him? They may feel that 2015 first-round pick Malcom Brown may be able to take over Branch’s role in 2017, despite a relative lack of development in his second year in the league. Brown struggled with his consistency while Branch was a rock, so it may behoove the Patriots to keep Branch around for another season while Brown continues to develop, rather than thrust him into a bigger role before he’s ready.
But if the Patriots let Branch sign elsewhere as a free agent, it would represent a vote of confidence in Brown’s ability to take a step forward in 2017. The Patriots also may feel similarly confident in Vincent Valentine, who improved over the course of his rookie season and came up with a few big plays in the playoffs.
Conclusion: Branch was an important piece of the Patriots defense in 2016, but the team may not view him that way moving forward. He will be another year older and would probably require a slight salary bump to keep around. But in the big picture, it’s probably a good idea to retain Branch’s services for at least one more year – especially when he likely won’t get anything better on the open market.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at email@example.com.