The 2016 New England Patriots were strong in the trenches on both sides of the ball. That shouldn’t change this season.
In addition to bringing back their entire offensive line, the Patriots remained fully stocked at defensive tackle this offseason by re-signing Alan Branch and adding former Baltimore Ravens D-lineman Lawrence Guy in free agency.
Branch, perhaps the most underrated player on New England’s Super Bowl LI-winning defense, led all Patriots D-tackles with 626 defensive snaps played last season. Fellow starter Malcom Brown, who struggled with consistency at times in his second NFL season, was close behind with 596 snaps, while the third man in the interior defensive tackle rotation, Vincent Valentine, logged 288 snaps as a rookie.
Brach, who at 32 is nearly 10 years older than both Brown and Valentine, was the interior defensive line’s undisputed leader in 2016, and he’s coming off arguably the best season of his NFL career. The veteran set career highs with 49 tackles, three pass breakups and eight run stuffs. He also blocked a field goal and generally solidified the center of the Patriots’ defense, which led the league in fewest points allowed.
It will be interesting to see how Guy, who turned 27 in March and has played for the Ravens, San Diego Chargers and Indianapolis Colts during his seven-year NFL career, will fit into this group. Unlike Branch, Brown and Valentine, who are pure defensive tackles, the 6-foot-4, 305-pound Guy also has the ability to kick out to five-technique defensive end, meaning we could see him used in ways that Patriots tackles were not last season.
NESN.com’s Doug Kyed discussed Guy’s versatility in greater detail in his examination of New England’s pass rushers.
With organized team activities set to begin in less than two weeks, Branch, Guy, Brown and Valentine look like the clear-cut favorites to earn spots on the 53-man roster. That would leave Woodrow Hamilton on the outside looking in.
Hamilton joined the Patriots last season after going undrafted out of Ole Miss last spring, then split time between the active roster and the practice squad as a rookie. He showed promise last October in his NFL debut against the Cleveland Browns but appeared in just one game the rest of the season.
The same goes for the other three defensive tackles on New England’s current roster: third-year pro Darius Kilgo, who ended the 2016 season on the Patriots’ practice squad after being claimed off waivers from the Denver Broncos, and undrafted free agents Josh Augusta and Adam Butler.
Hamilton, Kilgo, Augusta and Butler all are eligible for practice-squad service this season, and that’s where they’re most likely to end up.
Thumbnail photo via Mitch Stringer/USA TODAY Sports Images