Tag Archives: Alan Branch

Final New England Patriots 53-Man Roster Projection 4.0

Steve Balestrieri
August 28, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

As we’ve been saying all summer, the New England Patriots will have many difficult decisions to make when the final 53-man cut down is due after the Giants game. The hour glass is running out and if players are going to make a move, they have a week remaining to convince the coaches that they’re worth keeping.

With some serious injuries to Derek Rivers and Julian Edelman, that will open up two spots that we had as locks. Ditto for the release of Kony Ealy. So, despite that, we can expect that the Patriots initial 53-man roster will change rather quickly as they’ll probably pick up a player or two via the waiver wire. I wouldn’t rule out a trade for an edge player either as they are really thin there right now.

With that in mind, we’ll take our final crack at the roster here on Sunday night with time to digest and re-watch the Lions game.

First up is the offense…

OFFENSE (24)
QUARTERBACK (3): Tom Brady, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jacoby Brissett

Out: None
New England has traditionally kept two QBs on their roster. Last year they kept three because of the crazy Brady suspension. I didn’t expect Brissett to push Garoppolo for the #2 slot this season, but his play has been really disappointing. He holds the ball far too long and his arm, though cannon-like has the accuracy of an old smooth-bore musket and not where it should be.

But I just don’t see them cutting bait with Brissett yet. Is it possible? You betcha, but not this year. I think they will stick with three but Brissett isn’t a lock by any means.

RUNNING BACK (5): James White, Mike Gillislee, Rex Burkhead, Dion Lewis, James Develin

Out: D.J. Foster, Brandon Bolden, Glenn Gronkowski, LeShun Daniels
No changes here, I really wanted to find a way to keep both Foster and Bolden. Foster is going to be on a roster somewhere on Opening Weekend. If it isn’t here, it will be somewhere else. I thought of keeping only two TEs and utilizing him in an RB/Slot receiver mode where Devlin and an extra tackle can help in the blocking. And they still may do that.

Bolden is a superb STs performer but with Gillislee back and looking healthy, I don’t see how they keep him without cutting from somewhere else.

TIGHT END (3): Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen, James O’Shaughnessy

Out: Matt Lengel, Sam Cotton, Jacob Hollister
While he’s played well the past few weeks, O’Shaughnessy’s slot is still tenuous at best. He’s a better blocker but not as good as a receiver as Hollister. The UDFA rookie from Wyoming had a big game against Jax and then was barely used after that. It is obvious the team likes O’Shaughnessy and wants to keep him. Lengel, who is banged up didn’t show enough to warrant keeping him around.

WIDE RECEIVER (5): Brandin Cooks, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell, Danny Amendola, Austin Carr

Out: Julian Edelman (IR), Matthew Slater (IR), Devin Lucien, Cody Hollister, Tony Washington, K.J. Maye
Julian Edelman’s injury opens the door for the Patriots to keep Austin Carr, who to me has just barely edged out Devin Lucien for the final spot at the position. Both Edelman and Slater go to IR, Slater will return later this season, which will make for another interesting decision. The top four are locks and will be needed to step up a bit more.

INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE (4): David Andrews, Shaq Mason, Joe Thuney, Ted Karras
Out: Jason King, James Ferentz, Chase Farris

No changes here. Center David Andrews and guards Mason and Thuney were all starters last year, are locked and have played well this summer. Karras gets the nod over Ferentz who will be a primary practice squad candidate

OFFENSIVE TACKLE (4):  Nate Solder, Antonio Garcia, Marcus Cannon, Cameron Fleming

Out: LaAdrian Waddle, Conor McDermott, Cole Croston, Max Rich, Andrew Jelks (IR)
The good news is that Nate Solder is back at practice and although he didn’t make the trip to Detroit, he should be ready for the Chiefs game on Opening Night. Garcia has been banged up, does his injury preclude him from making the roster and going on IR? That may open the door a crack for Conor McDermott or LaAdrian Waddle (also banged up) to step in. But it appears that Solder, Cannon, and Fleming are locked in right now.

Next up in the defense.

DEFENSE (25):
DEFENSIVE TACKLE (5): Alan Branch, Malcom Brown, Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine, Adam Butler

Out: Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta,
With the lack of enough edge players and the release of Kony Ealy, this opens the door for another player to step up inside and that is Adam Butler who has had a very solid camp. He’s shown the ability to penetrate inside and disrupt things in the running game. Branch, Brown, and Lawrence Guy are locked. Guy had a solid camp and with Butler, the team may opt for more of a 3-4 look with the bigger bodies inside.

Hamilton, Kilgo, and Augusta played well this summer and are victims of numbers more than anything else.

EDGE RUSHER (3): Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise, Geneo Grissom,

Out: Derek Rivers (IR), Caleb Kidder, Keionta Davis
Ealy was released early…which means that he was in no way in their plans for 2017 after an up and down training camp. Depth has become a serious issue here. Wise will be looked to now, to provide the pressure with Trey Flowers. Grissom right now is my 53rd player on the roster. He could be replaced somewhere else but sticks around for his STs play. But he’s been virtually invisible on defense and that isn’t a good sign.

Look for the linebackers to provide help in this realm. Dont’a Hightower, Van Noy, and Langi will all be utilized as edge rushers as well. This is an area they may cherry pick off of the waiver wire and/or swing a trade. I think Davis will go to the practice squad and possibly play a factor down the road sometime in the future.

LINEBACKER (6): Dont’a Hightower, David Harris, Kyle Van Noy, Shea McClellin, Harvey Langi, Trevor Bates

Out: Elandon Roberts (IR), Jonathan Freeny, Brooks Ellis
I had the team keeping just five linebackers all summer but with the dearth of edge players, they keep an extra LB and those guys will help out on the edge as well. David Harris is an early-down inside run stuffer who is a liability in coverage (see Roberts). But the difference is, he’s a guy who is an established, smart veteran and will be rarely out of position. Hightower is a guy who can play inside or on the edge as a rusher, as well as Van Noy.

Langi and Bates, the last addition to the linebacking crew both had a good summer and training camp. Langi was a bit overaggressive at times as a pass rusher, but he’ll learn to temper those tendencies. Bates noses out Belichick favorite and STs standout Freeny and Roberts goes to IR.

CORNERBACK (6): Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe, Jonathan Jones, Kenny Moore, Cyrus Jones

Out: Justin Coleman, DJ Killings, William Likely
The top four are locked and ready for the season. Gilmore had, in my opinion, a terrific summer. He’s adapted extremely well to the Patriots system and should be an outstanding addition. He and Butler promise to be a dynamic pair of corners on the edge. Rowe and Jonathan Jones have split the nickel corner duties and will continue to do so, depending on the matchups. Both played well this summer. Kenny More displayed a nose for the ball all summer and just beats out the veteran Justin Coleman. Cyrus Jones, for now, is a corner in name only. He’s the primary Kick returner but the team may ultimately decide to go with Dion Lewis/Amendola, in which case he’d be expendable.

SAFETY (5): Patrick Chung, Devin McCourty, Duron Harmon, Brandon King, Nate Ebner

Out:  Jordan Richards, David Jones, Damarius Travis, Jason Thompson
The top three of Chung, McCourty, and Harmon have been solid and are locked. The team has depth for those two with Nate Ebner and Brandon King who are mainly special teamers, neither of whom plays much defense although Ebner has played in spots in the past.

Jordan Richards is a favorite of Belichick and the team is trying every way of keeping him around. They switched him to the linebacker position in the “Big Nickel” look, the Pat Chung role and he was as inconsistent as he’s been elsewhere. Too slow, too stiff with a penchant for taking bad angles. Jones was hurt all summer, Travis played well in spots. Both may be candidates for the practice squad.

SPECIAL TEAMS (3): Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona,

Out: None
A good solid group who have had a good camp thus far. Gostkowski still seems to have a mental block for extra points. But is solid on his field goal attempts and his kickoffs which are outstanding at getting the team great field position on defense. Allen has had a very strong camp. We haven’t mentioned Cardona much at all….which tells you his snaps have been right on the money.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

New England Patriots Training Camp Primer: Defensive Line

Steve Balestrieri
July 17, 2017 at 6:30 am ET

Versatility and Physicality Mark The Pats DL

The Patriots head into training camp in ten days and there should be no shortage of competition at a number of spots. As a lead-in to the beginning of camp, we’ll break down the positions and give our take on who is a lock, a near lock for the 53-man roster and who is on the bubble. Next up on our primers is the Defensive Line position.

Bill Belichick likes to say that the spring’s OTAs and Minicamp is a learning exercise and that the real competition begins in training camp. With a roster of 90 players and no cuts needed before the final 53-man roster cut down, there will be plenty of time for evaluation.

So, we’re going to look at the Patriots Defensive Line and how they shake out. There is much versatility here and that what makes the Patriots defense so effective. In a sack driven league, they’re rather pedestrian at them despite leading the league in points against in 2016.

DL Malcom Brown will be expected to be more consistent in 2017. (SBalestrieri photo)

It wasn’t smoke and mirrors, the team uses a variety of different looks and squeezes offenses from running the ball and then with their pass rushers, do not let opponents out of the pocket where big plays tend to happen. They demand their edge players set the edge first, they’re not and have never been a “sell-out” pass rush team.

The team lost defensive ends, Jabaal Sheard and Chris Long, this spring but drafted two younger guys in Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise while picking up Kony Ealy from the Panthers in a steal of a trade, during the NFL Draft. The team also picked up the versatile and underrated Lawrence Guy from Baltimore. Trey Flowers was arguably their best DL down the stretch and into the playoffs and Alan Branch was outstanding all season.

Roster Locks: Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy, Rob Ninkovich, Derek Rivers, Deatrich Wise, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown
Everything starts with the big men in the middle and Branch and Brown were very good in 2016. Branch frequently plays over the center and is outstanding at stuffing the run. Brown is as well. Their job is to force everything outside where the defensive ends and linebackers are supposed to clean it up. They each got a little bit of push in the passing game but that is something that Brown could do a bit more of as well as be more consistent in 2017.

Patriots rookie DE Deatrich Wise in action at minicamp in June. (SBalestrieri photo)

Ealy will be an intriguing guy to watch this year. He’s in a contract year and has been given a clean slate by the coaches in New England.  The biggest knock against him was that he didn’t buy in when he was in Carolina. He seems to be doing that right off the bat here, which is a good sign. When he’s on, he’s a difficult man to block. Just rewind to Super Bowl L and watch him against the Broncos.

Big things are expected of Flowers this season, and after the way he finished 2016, he seems to be the go-to guy in the pass rush. Flowers, like many others in the Pats defense, is versatile and can rush from the edge or push inside as an interior pass rusher.

Ninkovich is a guy who is always at his best in clutch situations. He may be losing a step but he’s another versatile guy who can line up as a defensive end or drop as an outside linebacker.

Rob Ninkovich has been a clutch performer for the Patriots defense. (SBalestrieri photo)

Rivers and Wise by virtue of their draft stock are untouchable this season. Rivers is another guy who can play DE or OLB and was the Patriots top draft choice this season. Wise is another big DE in the Patriots mold that is an edge setter first and a pass rusher second. He was hurt in his senior season in college but had a very impressive 2015.

With the depth listed above, these rookie edge players, they won’t have a ton of pressure put on them to produce much this season. They will be able to learn the defense, get used to the speed of the pro game and get some reps here and there.

Near Roster Locks: Lawrence Guy, Vincent Valentine
Valentine showed some nice flashes last year in his rookie campaign. He’s another big body who can stuff the run on the inside. Guy is a versatile, movable piece and plays the 1-technique or out to the 5-technique. He seems like he’s going to be a nice fit in the Patriots defense. We’ll have to see if he can translate that to the field.

It is going to take some hard work from the guys below to unseat either of these two players. But stranger things have happened. Unless someone gets hurt or a case of the Foxboro Flu.

On the Bubble: Geneo Grissom, Woodrow Hamilton, Darius Kilgo, Josh Augusta, Adam Butler
The clock is running out on Geneo Grissom. He’s a guy that was drafted ahead of Flowers and was thought to have all kinds of versatility. But it hasn’t happened for him, he’s been unable to make a dent in the defense. Hamilton made the team a year ago but with the addition of Guy from the Ravens, he’s going to have to turn it up… a lot.

Augusta is a big-body, run stuffer in the Vince Wilfork mold, he’s listed at 6’0, 335-pounds…which may be wishful thinking. Passing the conditioning test on Day 1 will be a tough task for the big man, who failed to complete a lap during minicamp…twice.

Butler is a definite under the radar guy. Signed as a UDFA from Vanderbilt, the 6’4, 305-pound DL can be a run-stuffing tackle or a penetrator from the interior on passing downs. He played OL in college before switching over. He’ll be a guy to watch to see if he can turn some heads.

Kilgo was drafted by Denver and appeared in 18 games in two seasons before being released last November. The Pats signed the big 6’3, 320 DL to the practice squad where he spent the remaining part of the season.

Our next primer will have the Patriots Linebackers… stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

An Early Projection for the Patriots Starting Lineup, Better, Stronger, Faster

Steve Balestrieri
May 8, 2017 at 9:08 am ET

The NFL Draft is in the books, free agency has been fruitful, and the Patriots have made a flurry of initial UDFA moves. Barring any late moves or last minute trades, the initial roster of the 2017 Patriots should now be set.

As it stands now on paper, the roster for this season’s team looks better than the one that just won the Super Bowl. But as Bill Belichick has frequently said, you never really know what each season’s team will be like until Thanksgiving. Lots of things can and will change, injuries occur, and some players’ production will either rise or fall inside the system. Tweaks to the roster always occur during the season.

But what we see now should constitute the bulk of this year’s team. Confidence is high as always in New England. And for a team that has won 10 or more games for 14 straight seasons, why should there be any other feeling?

So here is a quick projection for the starting lineup for the 2017 Patriots

Offense:
Quarterback:

Tom Brady: Well duh? No change from last year or the 15 years prior. While the talk remains that eventually, his play is going to fall off a cliff due to his age, at this point, it is a lot of wishful thinking for a lot of non-Patriots supporters. His play, especially in the 2nd half of Super Bowl LI shows he’s still at the top of the heap in regard to NFL QBs.

His backups remain Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett. The rumor mill for Jimmy G. had him being traded this offseason but he’s still here, at least for 2017 and should any injury occur, he’ll be ready to step in.


James White is among a crowded Patriots backfield this season.

Running Back:

James White: After a Super Bowl where he could have easily been named the MVP, White has been given a nice raise and contract extension. And with the Patriots being a passing team first, White has proven to be a trusted, capable weapon in the offense.

But the Patriots are a matchup team that uses a rotation of running backs so their roster of backs doesn’t really have a starter per se, it will depend on how they match up against an opponent. Mike Gillislee will have a big role, taking over the big back i.e. LeGarrette Blount role. Something to consider, New England runs the ball on third down much more so than most fans would believe, so Gillislee will have a big role.

Rex Burkhead and Dion Lewis, who should be completely healthy now round out the RB options. James Develin remains the fullback. Brandon Bolden, D.J. Foster, and LeShun Daniels are longshots for the roster at this point.

Wide Receiver:

Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Brandin Cooks: The Patriots brought in the speedster Cooks who was very productive in New Orleans this offseason. He’ll move around from outside to the slot depending on the matchups. A look at the top three with Edelman, Hogan, and Cooks shows that all of them can do the same. That makes for a very difficult group to cover. The versatility factor makes this group even more dangerous.

Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola are the primary backups and they’ve shown that they’ve earned Brady’s circle of trust. Mitchell came on in the second half of his rookie season and should be ready for more production in Year 2.

Devin Lucien, Devin Street, and Cody Hollister are longshots for the roster.


Rob Gronkowski is once again the Patriots top TE Option heading into 2017.

Tight End:

Rob Gronkowski, Dwayne Allen: Gronkowski returns healthy for 2017 and Allen was brought over in a rare trade with the Colts, replacing Martellus Bennett who left in free agency. Gronk, when healthy remains the gold standard for NFL tight ends. Allen is an excellent blocker that can be very productive in the passing game who can attack the seams of the defense.

There is now plenty of depth behind them with James O’Shaughnessy, Matt Lengel, Rob Housler and Jacob Hollister fighting it out for a roster slot and repetitions. Training camp competition will be interesting to watch here.

Tackle:

Nate Solder, Marcus Cannon: No changes here from 2016. Solder returned from IR and played very solid in 2016. He’s in the last year of his contract and the Patriots must decide this year if they want him to return in 2018. Cannon was the biggest pleasant surprise of 2016. He parlayed a contract extension into a very solid campaign under the able tutelage of Dante Scarnecchia.

The team drafted a potential replacement for Solder in 2018 or beyond with Antonio Garcia. They added another tackle in the late rounds of the draft with Conor McDermott. He’ll be fighting backups Michael Williams, Cameron Fleming and LaAdrian Waddle for reps and a roster slot.

Guard:

Joe Thuney, Shaq Mason: No changes here from 2016. Thuney came in and started from Day 1 at left guard. As can be expected, he struggled a bit as a rookie and needs to come back stronger for his second season. Mason is a tough, road grader in the running game and will be looking to improve as well in 2017.

Primary backups should be Jamil Douglas who was brought over in midseason from Miami who was a 4th round draft pick in 2015 and Chris Barker.

Center:

David Andrews: No change here from 2016. Andrews is a bit undersized for the position but is smart and tough. He won over Tom Brady during training camp last year because of his ability to make the line calls and seeing the field much like Brady did.

His backup remains Ted Karras, the tough but less mobile version of Andrews. Karras can also play guard as well, the versatility that the coaching staff loves.


Flowers had a strong showing in 2016.

Defense:
Defensive End:

Trey Flowers, Kony Ealy: Lots of changes here. Gone are last season’s Week 1 starters Chris Long and Jabaal Sheard via free agency. But Flowers, who came on strong in the 2nd half of the season was the team’s best defensive lineman down the stretch and should be primed for a very solid 2017. Ealy was brought over from the Panthers as well as a 3rd round pick for the Patriots 2nd rounder.

Lots of good depth here now, Rob Ninkovich will play both DE and OLB and fill in where he’s needed and may still lobby for starting duties. Top draft choice Derek Rivers gives the team the speed and athleticism from the edge. Deatrich Wise is a bigger, edge setting end who can kick inside as an interior pass rusher. Lawrence Guy is another big man who can play inside as an interior tackle or on the edge. Geneo Grissom is on the outside looking in this year.

Tackle:

Malcom Brown, Alan Branch: No changes to the starting lineup. Brown played solidly in Year 2 but could stand to improve his pocket push in 2017. Branch was excellent against the run in 2016, eating up a ton of space. He returns with a new deal and has played the best football of his career since coming to New England.

Backups include Vincent Valentine, Woodrow Hamilton, Guy, Darius Kilgo, and UDFA Josh Augusta who is one of the players to watch in training camp. He’s a huge space eater who could be one of the surprise players to stick on the roster.

Linebacker:

Dont’a Hightower, Jonathan Freeny: Wait, what? People forget Freeny, a Bill Belichick favorite was a starter for the defense a year ago until landing on IR. Hightower got a new deal after testing free agency and not finding the market he envisioned out there. He’s the glue that holds the defense together for the Pats. He calls the defense and is the guy they need in the middle. He can do it all, stuff the run, cover in the flat and blitz up the A-gaps. Hightower’s starting slot is secure, Freeny will have to re-earn his spot this summer. But for now, he’s in.

Backups include sub-package third down players Shea McClellin and Kyle Van Noy, run-stuffer Elandon Roberts, Ninkovich, Trevor Bates and UDFA Harvey Langi. Langi is one of my players to watch this summer.

Since the Patriots spend so much time in sub-packages, we only include two starting linebackers, therefore…


Butler’s potential return solidifies a terrific secondary.

Cornerback:

Stephon Gilmore, Malcolm Butler, Eric Rowe: The team gave Gilmore a big money contract this spring during free agency. And after a contentious period with Butler, he signed his free-agent tender and has been in for off-season workouts. Rowe is a big matchup corner and gives the Patriots a very solid starting three. Each has the versatility to be shifted around and play outside or in the slot depending on how Belichick and Matt Patricia choose to use them.

Backups include Cyrus Jones, Jonathan Coleman, Jonathan Jones, and intriguing UDFA D.J. Killings who for now, is a long shot for the roster.

Safety:

Devin McCourty, Pat Chung: No changes here from 2016. McCourty is the QB for the secondary and always ensures that the players in are in the right position. He plays the centerfield position in the base defense and can slide up to play in the slot in the “big nickel”. Chung is the guy in the box, he plays physical against the run and he’ll cover tight ends in the short to intermediate range.

Duron Harmon was brought back with a nice deal in free agency. He plays a lot of snaps and replaces McCourty as the center fielder in big nickel coverage. Jordan Richards has been disappointing thus far. Nate Ebner and Brandon King are special teamers.

Special Teams:

Stephen Gostkowski, Ryan Allen, Joe Cardona, Matthew Slater: The team’s specialists remain the same. Gostkowski will have training camp competition for the first time in a while from Josh Gable, known more for his trick shots. Punter Ryan Allen and LS Joe Cardona face no competition. Slater is a perennial Pro-Bowl gunner.

So, with the additions made in the draft and free agency, the Patriots look …on paper in a prime position to compete for another Super Bowl bid. Of course, injuries and other factors always weigh in but there are no holes on the roster as it currently stands. They’ve addressed their needs across the board and look even better than the team that won 14 games in the regular season and three more in the playoffs in 2016.

Is it time for mini-camp yet?

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Wild Start To Free Agency For the Patriots Featured Surprising Moves

Ian Logue
March 10, 2017 at 7:14 am ET

When it comes to figuring out the offseason moves for the Patriots, saying that they’re one of the most unpredictable teams in the NFL would be an understatement.

Thursday’s start to free agency only further reinforced that, with the team making more headlines thanks to the trade the Patriots pulled off to replace Martellus Bennett, which leaked out  just one day earlier that they were acquiring tight end Dwayne Allen from the Colts.

The fact Bennett wasn’t coming back wasn’t nearly the surprise that learning the Patriots had found common ground with the rival Indianapolis Colts was.  Yet New England managed to fill a key need yet again, setting themselves up to have another offensive weapon in Tom Brady’s arsenal heading into 2017 and it cost them just a 4th-round draft pick.

Bennett said goodbye to the fans on Twitter Thursday and he’s reportedly receiving interest from the Oakland Raiders as well as the 49ers.  As a result, it sounds like he’s headed to the West Coast, with warm weather and a big payday likely in his future.

BUTLER ON THE BLOCK?

But the bigger shock came on Thursday with the news that negotiations of a potential contract extension with Malcolm Butler have seemingly turned sour enough that the Patriots are potentially exploring trading him to New Orleans in a deal for receiver Brandin Cooks.  That in itself is hard to fathom, especially given what a big part of their defense that he’s been.

However, things apparently haven’t been great behind the scenes with New England’s number one defensive back.  According to a report from Mike Giardi, Butler hasn’t been happy with his salary since last spring and the offer he received during the year on a potential extension apparently wasn’t enough and despite being a key part to them winning their fifth title, it didn’t go up after the season ended.  That leaves Butler where he is right now, without the raise he’s looking for and not in control of his immediate future.  As a restricted free agent, the team placed a first-round tender on him, which puts them in the driver’s seat heading into next season, unless another team is willing to give up a first-round pick to obtain him.

The situation got even more interesting Thursday and Butler should really be seething, having learned the Patriots signed former Bills CB Stephon Gilmore to a 5-year deal worth an astonishing $65 million, $40 of which is reportedly guaranteed.  Gilmore, you may recall, was the cornerback in coverage on the bomb Brady threw to Chris Hogan when the Patriots played the Bills on the road this season, who blew by him for the touchdown.

Not that the play was entirely his fault, but the fact the Patriots chose to break the bank for a player who has yet to prove anything in their defense over a guy who has done everything he’s been asked to do doesn’t make a lot of sense.  It’s definitely a puzzling decision and one which likely sends a mixed message to other players in the locker room.

What the future holds for Butler remains to be seen and some believe the move to acquire Gilmore may have more to do with what’s happening with Logan Ryan (who is reportedly garnering interest from Tennessee).  But either way, the Patriots have now set the value of that position in their secondary, and it’s hard not to feel like Butler got the short end of the stick with what transpired Thursday.  It will be an interesting situation to watch because on paper, with Butler still part of the team, the Patriots have one of the best secondaries in football.

Now the only question is how things will play out and whether or not he’ll be a part of it in 2017.

HARMON, BRANCH BACK IN THE FOLD, SHEARD VISITS DOLPHINS

Meanwhile, the Patriots did have some success on Thursday, with Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald reporting that safety Duron Harmon is back in the fold, with the veteran agreeing to a four-year deal worth $17-million, which includes incentives that would earn him up to $20-million.  Harmon has quietly been one of New England’s most consistent players in their secondary and the fact they were able to keep him is their first big success of the offseason.

Alan Branch is returning to the Patriots on a two-year deal that was agreed to on Thursday. (SBalestrieri photo)

Their second came when they managed to re-sign Alan Branch to a 2-year deal, keeping one of their most important players up front around for at least a couple of more seasons.

The deal is reportedly worth $12 million and allows New England to keep one of their key components on their defensive line intact for a couple of more seasons.

Meanwhile, Jabaal Sheard remains on the market, with Ian Rapoport reporting that he was in Miami visiting the Dolphins Thursday.

COMMUNICATION REMAINS GOOD BETWEEN PATS, HIGHTOWER

One of the biggest loose ends still hanging out there is linebacker Dont’a Hightower, who is reportedly receiving interest from Miami and Tennessee, seems to be closer to re-signing with New England.

Rapoport reports that the two sides are in good communication and so far, it sounds like the Patriots remain in range of his asking price.  New England reportedly offered him $10 million per season at the beginning of 2016 and so far, according to ESPN’s Ed Werder, the veteran is seeking between $10 million and $13 million.

Keeping Hightower remains one of the biggest keys of the offseason, as Bill Belichick would likely have a tough time trying to fill his shoes considering the fact he’s a respected leader in the locker room as well the guy who is essentially the quarterback of their defense.

For now, it sounds like his return is no longer as big of a long-shot as it might have seemed prior to the beginning of free agency, but there’s still a long way to go before this is over.  He’ll likely continue to receive interest from other teams and hopefully, the two sides can reach a common ground before another club does.

New England Patriots Free Agent Profile Alan Branch

Steve Balestrieri
February 16, 2017 at 9:30 am ET

The Patriots will enter the beginning of the 2017 league season with several important decisions to make in regards to free agency. While the team has the third most salary cap room in the NFL this season, they have a slew of free agents including several who are either starters or important role players.

We’ll be doing profiles on each of the free agents in the upcoming days and give you our take on whether they return or move on. One of the starters and a very important piece is defensive lineman Alan Branch.

The Patriots picked up Branch during the 2014 Super Bowl run after Chandler Jones injured his hip in midseason. The Buffalo Bills released Branch after a DUI arrest earlier that year. He then played very well but sparingly down the stretch for the Patriots and was an integral part of the team that defeated the Seahawks.

He was even more valuable this time around, being arguably the Patriots best interior defensive lineman all season long being a two-gap run stuffer inside and providing outstanding support against the run and the occasional pocket push against the pass.

Branch was originally drafted by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2007 NFL Draft and played four seasons for the Cardinals before playing well in two seasons for the Seahawks. Branch spent 2013 as a member of the Buffalo Bills. After playing well for Buffalo that year, he was given a three-year contract extension and paid a $3.1 million dollar signing bonus.

But like Michael Floyd this season, he let a lapse in judgment cost him. But since his release by Buffalo, he’s been a solid teammate and a veteran presence on the team providing very solid play next to two younger players inside with Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine.

Alan Branch was a tremendous run-stuffer for the Patriots defense in 2016. (SBalestrieri photo)

Why Branch Will Return: The Patriots don’t have a lot of depth inside with just Branch, Brown, and Valentine along with Woodrow Hamilton and the three players have little experience. Brown finished his 2nd season and the latter two were rookies in 2016.

Branch at 32, shouldn’t break the bank in terms of free agency. After the last Super Bowl run he signed a two-year deal for a moderate sum ($5 million-dollar range). If he is willing to accept a similar deal again, it would be easy to see the Patriots paying him around the same amount of money with weight and playing time incentives worked in.

The Patriots are happy with his play the past few years as Branch has been a very solid performer both on the practice and playing fields. There is no reason to think he couldn’t continue to perform at a high level for the next season or two and provide the big immovable object inside, eating up two gaps which allow the linebackers to come in and make plays.

The 6’6, 350-pound Branch while an immovable force inside is quite athletic for a big man and enjoys skateboarding since he was a kid in New Mexico. He didn’t panic after a slow start in Super Bowl LI by the Patriots defense. Instead, he said, the players just trusted in themselves and the process.

“Honestly, we just started finally executing,” he said after the game. “We were on the field and we knew what we had to do, but we weren’t getting it done in the first half. When we came into halftime, we talked to each other. We weren’t down, we didn’t give up. We weren’t talking about rolling over or anything. We just started talking about being on our job, being more positive, having fun out there.”

Branch actually leapfrogged Brown this season on the Patriots depth chart and played more snaps than the 2nd year player after Brown in his rookie year, led the defensive line in snap percentage in 2015. Branch played just under 60 percent of the snaps after playing in under 40 percent of them last year.

Why Branch Won’t Return: Branch has won a pair of Super Bowls with New England and may be wanting to cash in one final time. There are always teams looking for veteran run-stuffing help inside and it is possible that a team will pony up more money than the Patriots will feel fits his value. In that scenario, one could easily see Branch leaving for one final payday in the sun.

It is possible that the Patriots will want to get younger at the position and bring in a rookie player that can stuff the run and play for about 20 percent of what they’d have to pay Branch to return.

Branch is at that age when the big men begin to break down and perhaps the coaches will feel that they’ve already gotten the best that they can ask for from Branch at this stage of his career and be prepared to move on. Remember, they did much the same thing with Vince Wilfork after Super Bowl XLIX.

Bottom Line: The Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked about Branch earlier during the playoffs and praised his size and athleticism. The Providence Journal quoted Belichick as saying this about Branch:

“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,” Belichick said. “They’re hard to find. Ted Washington had that kind of length and size. Ted was 6-5, but Alan moves better than Ted does, or did at that point in his career. We’ve had some other longer guys like Richard Seymour or guys like that, but they weren’t 350 pounds. There’re not too many of them. Gerard Warren was a big guy that ran well. Money [Warren] was a very athletic player who wasn’t quite as long as Branch, but moving into that range.”

“It’s hard to measure the disruptive plays but he’s certainly got his share of those. 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.”

It will be interesting to see how this scenario plays out. Branch is a very valuable member of the defense. He was a key cog in a Patriots defense that was very solid against the run and his presence inside allowed players like Hightower and Roberts at linebacker to flow and make plays.

If the money is right, it is easy to see him returning for a final contract that will allow him to retire as a Patriot. He’s been very happy here in Matt Patricia’s defense and that factor may sway him to remain. But other teams love to pluck players off of Super Bowl-winning rosters to provide that type of presence and mentorship to their younger players. If someone ponies up the cash, he could bolt. Right now, I’d say it is even money that Branch returns in 2017.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Face Tough Challenge Keeping Their Defense Together Heading into Free Agency

Ian Logue
February 13, 2017 at 7:48 am ET

When the trade of Chandler Jones went down last March, the move seemed to be the signal of New England’s decision to ensure they would be able to lock up Dont’a Hightower and Jamie Collins for the foreseeable future and maybe even extend Malcolm Butler and possibly a couple of other players.

Nearly a year later, none of that happened.

Hightower is coming off of a solid season, which included a key play in Super Bowl LI that allowed New England to get back in the game and ultimately pull off a historic comeback to win their fifth title.  As for Collins, he was shipped to Cleveland midseason, rumored to be because of problems stemming from not sticking to the team’s defensive scheme and potentially becoming an issue in the locker room.

Meanwhile, Butler had another great year and is closing in on being a restricted free agent, having played for right around $600k for 2016, far below his market value.  New England is in the driver’s seat with Butler, but the fact he hasn’t yet been locked up for the long-term is still an interesting situation. It’s possible the Patriots may have wanted to be sure his terrific showing in 2015 wasn’t an anomaly and if that’s the case, he’s cernatainly shown that he should be part of the team’s nucleus moving forward and is worthy of a pay increase.

But the fact that no extensions came about is interesting given the fact that things had seemed like they were shaping up to go that route.  The Patriots had made their moves, all that was seemingly left to do was to work out the numbers.

Yet nothing was ever worked out with any of those players, but it’s not like they didn’t try.  According to Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network, before this season, the team offered Hightower a deal worth more than $10-million per season and he reportedly turned it down.  The team could use the franchise tag (worth around $14 million), which the team has done in the past with another key player on defense in Vince Wilfork (2010) before eventually reaching to an extension.

Whatever they come up with will have to be competitive as he seems focused on making sure he’s paid appropriately after making two game-saving plays (his stop against Marshawn Lynch two years ago set up Butler’s game-winning interception) in two Super Bowl victories.

“Absolutely. I’ve spent five years here. I’m eager to see how that’ll turn out,” Hightower told the Providence Journal of free agency. “I’m looking forward to it. … I love New England. I love the fans. They can keep their cold weather, but it’s been a great five years and I’ve loved every second of it.”

Behind Hightower is defensive back Logan Ryan and safety Duron Harmon, who have each been solid in their roles on the defense.  As a cornerback, Ryan will likely garner interest in the open market and may enter a price tag that could just become too high for the Patriots, especially given how much they’ll eventually need to pay Butler.  The same could be said for Harmon, who has played his way into earning a big raise and he’ll likely get it from a team looking for such a talented player to add to their secondary.


Branch joins Hightower among defensive free agents this offseason.

There’s also Alan Branch, who the Patriots caught a major break with after the veteran won his appeal to avoid a late season suspension that could have jeopardized their solid finish and cost them their top seed.  His value up front can’t be understated, and he’s proven he’s a key part of their defense.

Then there’s Jabaal Sheard, who had a rough year but came on strong down the stretch, and he’s another player who New England will likely try and keep.  The same goes for Chris Long, who took a while to really get comfortable in this defense but got stronger as the year went on and proved to be a smart pick-up before the season.

The fact there are so many players will be a challenge, and oddly enough, It seems like it’s the first time that whatever plan the front office seemingly had to be proactive didn’t seem to work out.  It’s almost to the point where it’s hard not to wonder if there’s a collective effort out in the world of player agents to finally try and stop this juggernaut from underpaying guys in what they feel is too low below market value.  Given similar situations in the past, the fact nothing got done between last March and September is a bit of a red flag, and a curious situation to say the least.

Either way, this team faces some difficult challenges on the defensive side of the football this offseason as they try and keep their nucleus intact.  Success tends to result in big paydays since other teams want a taste of what each of these players just accomplished, and it will likely make things interesting in the coming months.  But with a higher cap number and over $60-million in cap room, the Patriots certainly have the space to get it done.

Now it’s just a matter of making the numbers work.  Hopefully, unlike last year, they’ll have a little more success this time around.

Patriots Have a Long List of Free Agents in 2017

Steve Balestrieri
February 9, 2017 at 9:28 am ET

The Patriots will enter the 2017 offseason with a ton of cap space ($61,248,593 according to our own salary cap guru in Miguel @patscap) but have a lot of players hitting free agency.  There is a total of 19 players that are free agents this spring. It begins with 13 unrestricted free agents, three restricted free agents, and three exclusive-rights free agents.

Here is a list of the Patriots free agents and their ages in parenthesis:

UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
TE Martellus Bennett (30)
RB LeGarrette Blount (30)
RB Brandon Bolden (27)
DT Alan Branch (32)
FB James Develin (28)
WR Michael Floyd (27)
FS Duron Harmon (26)
LB Dont’a Hightower (26)
DE Chris Long (31)
LB Barkevious Mingo (26)
CB Logan Ryan (26)
TE Greg Scruggs (26)
DE Jabaal Sheard (27)

RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS:
CB Malcolm Butler (26)
OT Cameron Fleming (24)
LB Trevor Reilly (29)

EXCLUSIVE-RIGHTS FREE AGENTS:
CB Justin Coleman (23)
LB Brandon King (23)
TE Matt Lengel (26)

So, what are the differences in the categories you ask? Well, I’m glad you did… sort of. The Patriots can extend any of the players below to a new deal prior to the March 9th deadline. Once the deadline hits, then that is when the different categories come into play.

The Unrestricted free agent is free to sign with any team for basically the best deal for the player, whether it be the money, the team or any other reason.

Restricted free agents can be offered one of three “tenders” by the team holding their rights. They are for players with just three years of accrued service in the league. Since most rookie contracts run for four years now, they are becoming rarer.

A tender is a one-year contract for a pre-determined amount and here are the categories: (note the amounts listed here are in 2016 money and will be subject to change.)

First round tender: 1 year, about $3.582 million
Second round tender: 1 year, about $2.516 million
Right of first refusal/Original round tender: 1 year, about $1.647 million

The original round tender means that if another team swoops in and signs a player, his last team would get a draft pick from the round that player was drafted in. In the case of a UDFA, the team would get nothing.

The team has the right of first refusal as well if a team were to offer a restricted free agent an offer, the Patriots have the right to match it.

Exclusive rights free agents haven’t accrued three years of NFL service and if the team extends them an offer sheet, they have to sign it.

So while the Patriots have tons of cap room, they also have some big decisions to make in regards to 21 free agents. The ERFAs are the most easily done if they want to keep them they are the easiest to retain. But from there the questions become a bit stickier.

We’ll be looking at some of the free agents in depth in the upcoming days. Who may stay and who may go.

Any questions regarding the salary cap and the inner workings of it should be addressed to Miguel aka @Patscap who covers the salary cap of the Patriots better than anyone else anywhere. We are fortunate to have him here at PatsFans.com and he has the breakdowns of the deals and how it all works.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

According to Carter, Patriots DT Branch Is Who You Need to Know

Ian Logue
January 30, 2017 at 10:44 pm ET

Former NFL receiver Chris Carter hasn’t said the smartest things in recent years, but it’s hard to argue with one statement he made this week.

According to FoxSports.com, Carter showed some respect for Alan Branch, who he feels is better than a former Patriots player who was pretty good.

“Only football people know his name — he’s a better Vince Wilfork than Wilfork was the last couple of years,” said Carter.

“The key to great run defense is gap control, and while Branch is also a threat in the pass defense rushing the quarterback, it’s his ability to control two gaps in the middle of the line that makes him so valuable to the Patriots,” said Carter.

Branch has been an important part of a New England defense that helped them lead the league in fewest average points per game allowed, while also being disruptive up front.  His presence will likely play an important part being as the Falcons bring in the 5th ranked rushing offense during the regular season, averaging 120.5 yards per game.  They’re also tied for 3rd in the NFL with 20 rushing touchdowns.

He’s been a terrific addition and now he’s got an opportunity to go out there one more time and play well.  If he does, he’ll be a Super Bowl champion.

Patriots DL Faces Questions With Alan Branch Suspended

Steve Balestrieri
November 21, 2016 at 8:04 pm ET

The Patriots defense took another hit as they will be without one of their top defensive players and a starter on the defensive line for possibly four games.

ESPN’s Adam Schefter has reported that defensive tackle Alan Branch has been suspended four games for violating the NFL’s drug policy. Apparently, Branch tested positive for marijuana. Branch is appealing per Schefter’s report.

Branch has been playing some of his best football since becoming a member of the Patriots in 2014. He’s been a valued anchor on the defensive line with Malcom Brown on the interior. This leaves the Patriots thin at the position with just Brown, and rookies Vincent Valentine and Woodrow Hamilton, both of whom have missed time this season due to injuries.

So what is in store for the Patriots who have upcoming games against the Jets, Rams, Ravens, and Broncos during Branch’s league imposed vacation? The good news in the short term is that his appeal won’t be heard until next week, so he’ll be able to play against the Jets.

But until Branch is eligible to return expect the Patriots to add another big body to the inside. Who is available?  Scouring the free agent market, there are a few names that could be of interest to the Patriots. Former Dolphin and Cleveland Brown Randy Starks, Ishmaa’ily Kitchen who spent some time with the Patriots, Kenrick Ellis as well as two players who spent training camp with the team, Terrance Knighton and Markus Kuhn.

With the Patriots defense struggling in recent weeks and facing teams that like to run the football, this could be a costly suspension. The rookies will be looked at to step up in the interim and play some valuable snaps.

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.

Patriots Sign DT John Hughes, Cut Anthony Johnson

Steve Balestrieri
September 26, 2016 at 3:54 pm ET

The Patriots are rapidly becoming the home of former Cleveland Browns.

ESPN’s Field Yates has reported that the Patriots are signing former Cleveland defensive tackle John Hughes. Hughes was a 3rd -round 2012 NFL Draft pick out of Cincinnati. He was released by the Browns last week after signing a 4-year, $14.4 million-dollar contract extension just a year ago.

He was supposed to be one of the anchors of the Browns defensive line but missed significant time during training camp due to a personal issue. He was used sparingly in the first two games and was shown the gate by Hue Jackson. With the emergence of rookie Carl Nassib, Hughes became expendable for Cleveland.

The 6’4, 320-pound Hughes played in 53 games, starting 10 and notched 109 combined tackles to go with 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble in his time for the Browns.

With the Patriots releasing undersized DT Anthony Johnson, today, this may be a move considering the Patriots next opponent, the Buffalo Bills who have a potent rushing attack that gained 208 yards against Arizona yesterday.

I asked Yates about him minutes ago and he said, that he’s a hard man to miss in person and that he’s a big run stuffing body inside and that he could provide insurance for both Alan Branch and Malcom Brown.

Hughes the Patriots roster that includes three other former Browns in linebacker Barkevious Mingo, defensive end Jabaal Sheard and running back Dion Lewis.

 

Follow me on Twitter @SteveB7SFG or email me at [email protected]

Listen to our Patriots 4th and 2 podcasts on blog talk radio as the writers Russ Goldman, Derek Havens and I from PatsFans.com discuss the latest Patriots news Wednesdays at 12 noon.