The countdown to camp with positional excerpts from my season preview book continues today with the defensive tackles.
One of the most underrated groups on the roster, Alan Branch, Malcom Brown and Vincent Valentine did a fantastic job controlling the heart of the offensive line and winning the battles in the trenches in 2016. The result was the best-ranked run defense (4th in Football Outsiders DVOA) ever under Belichick.
This is even more of an accomplishment when you consider the Patriots now use two defensive linemen to do what three used to do.
Branch might’ve been the defensive MVP for a large chunk of the season. The huge veteran often lined up at nose tackle and was near unmoveable. While Brown doesn’t have much flash to his game, but he’s an athletic technician who always seems to be in the right spot. He should start to get even more notice in his third year.
Together, Brown and Branch gave the Patriots everything they could expect from two stout tackles tasked with occupying multiple blockers and controlling the line of scrimmage.
Valentine did an outstanding job filling in at times for Branch and Brown and should take more strides in his second season. His goal line stop in the AFC Championship (see GIF) was the highlight of his season and a play to build on.
While the starting trio returns intact, free agent signee Lawrence Guy is one of then most intriguing new players who is below many radars. Guy’s interior pass rush skills should be a huge asset while his role on early downs is something to watch.
Let’s take a closer look at all the defensive tackles!
Alan Branch – Branch turned in one of the best seasons of his career in 2016, his 10th in the league, despite an in-house team suspension in training camp for unknown reasons. A dominant interior force, Branch helped give New England their best defensive run DVOA (4th) under Bill Belichick. The Patriots brought Branch back on a two-year deal, with an out after one season, worth $8.45 million. No play was bigger for the monstrous defensive tackle than his fumble recovery in the Super Bowl, showing extraordinary awareness to find the ball and change the course of the game. With contract checks in place, Branch should continue to key the Patriots front where he often lines up as a “0-technique” directly over the center. He finished with just a sack-and-a-half and 26 tackles, but did all the dirty work necessary to make the defense work.
Malcom Brown – Brown was quietly efficient in his second season, demonstrating outstanding lateral athleticism that made him and Branch the heart of the Patriots’ front. He matched his three sacks from his rookie year and added a safety to his resume, but like Branch, he was one of the unsung heroes of the 2016 Patriots. His attention to detail and mastery of technique is apparent in each snap he plays. 2017 could be a year Brown starts to get noticed as one of the most effective interior defensive linemen in the game.
Vincent Valentine – Valentine was my most pleasant surprise of the 2016 season. The Patriots selected him in third round, a spot most of the “pundits” thought was a reach. On film I felt like Valentine was going to need a long time to develop, but boy was I wrong. Valentine stepped right in and provided a reliable third rotational defensive tackle for the Patriots. He played 27.7 percent of the snaps and recorded one sack, but he saved his best for the AFC Championship where he made a stop on the goalline for a three-yard loss just before the half that maintained the Pats’ lead. Now, with a full year in the system, we’ll see if Valentine could be the heir apparent for Alan Branch’s starting spot.
Lawrence Guy – The Patriots signed Guy to a four-year, $13.4 million deal this offseason after a breakout season from the former Raven that saw him bring consistent interior pass rush pressure despite playing just 47 percent of the snaps. I’ve long banged the drum for more interior pass rush and Guy should give the Patriots some options outside of sliding their defensive ends into the interior as they’ve done the past few seasons. After losing Long and Sheard, Guy should be one of the primary, well, guys to pick up their slack. At 6’5”, 300 pounds, Guy should be able to play multiple spots along the Patriots’ line. He’s kicked around the league for a while, but it all seemed to click last season for him and he should be a valuable piece at a critical area of need.
Darius Kilgo – Kilgo was drafted by the Broncos in the sixth round of the 2014 draft and played a reserve role for two seasons before being released in 2016. The Patriots claimed him off waivers and added him to their practice squad late in 2016.
Woodrow Hamilton – Hamilton was added as a rookie free agent in 2016 and made the practice squad before getting called up for his first career start against the Browns in early October. He’s a major practice squad candidate again, or could find himself moving up the depth chart if injuries strike.
Josh Augusta – An undrafted rookie free agent out of Missouri, Augusta is a massive man weighing 365 pounds. It’s easy to see how he could fit in the middle of the defense. We’ll see how good of shape he’s in though, that could be a major hurdle.
Corey Vereen – An undrafted defensive lineman out of Tennessee, Vereen is undersized at 6’2”, 247, doing most of his damage as an edge rusher. He’s likely to shift to more of an edge/linebacker role in New England, where his seven sacks as a college senior might be replicated. Vereen was injured during offseason workouts and placed on IR for the 2017 season.
Adam Butler – An undrafted rookie out of Vanderbilt, Butler played all over the defensive line and even some offensive line. He had four sacks and six tackles-for-loss against SEC competition and is one of the more intriguing undrafted rookies.