HOUSTON — Two of the New England Patriots’ youngest players play on the defensive line. So does one of their oldest.
Second-year pro Malcom Brown, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Thursday, was a freshman in high school when Alan Branch began his NFL career in 2007. Ditto for rookie Vincent Valentine, who turns 23 later this month.
“I think they’re closer in age to my oldest daughter than they are to me,” Branch, 32, joked. “But those guys are awesome. I feel like they’re keeping me young, and we’re always joking around and having a good time. Really, I feel like we’re a close-knit group.”
Not that Branch needs anyone’s help to stay young at heart. The 350-pound defensive tackle is known for busting out dance moves on the sideline during timeouts. A lifelong skateboarding fan, he brought his longboard with him to Houston, hoping to sneak in a few early-morning rides before Super Bowl LI.
And while he considers himself a considerate and helpful teammate to youngsters Brown and Valentine, “veteran leader” isn’t a term he’d use to describe himself.
“I only give advice when it’s asked,” Branch said. “I’ve been in a place where people give you unwanted advice, and I’ve never really liked it. (But) if anybody asks me a question, I’m always willing to give them an answer and or work with them if they want to do some extra work or something.
He added: “I just like having fun, man. I go out there and have fun, and if they want to look at me as a leader, they can. And if not, I really don’t care. I don’t think I’m a leader. I don’t really view myself as that.”
Patriots defensive line coach Brendan Daly, however, paints a different picture. Speaking Wednesday at the Patriots’ Super Bowl hotel, Daly lauded Branch’s leadership qualities, describing him as a mentor to Brown, Valentine and rookie D-lineman Woodrow Hamilton.
“He has done a fantastic job with the young guys,” Daly said. “One of the great compliments that I would give Branch is with Malcom, with Vince, with Woodrow Hamilton — a guy on our practice squad — all the way back to training camp, he has made a tremendous effort to be a mentor to those guys, to coach those guys. He does a great job with them. He understands the game. He understands the technique that we play with. He understands what I’m teaching, and he does a very good job of communicating it to them.
“And honestly, there’s a lot of times where I just let him go. I feel him, whether it’s between (practice) periods or after a play, where he’ll grab a guy, and he and I probably saw the same thing. And I just let him deal with it, which is a great way to handle things from my perspective.”
On the field, the 2016 season was the best of Branch’s career. He played in all 16 games for New England and set personal bests in tackles (49), run stuffs (eight) and pass breakups (three).
“I would say he has played well this year, but I would also say if you look at the second half of last year, he played pretty well for us,” Daly said. “And even two years ago, after he got his feet underneath him, he played pretty good for us down near the end of that 2014-15 season.
“But he’s comfortable with the scheme. I think he’s comfortable with how he’s being used. I think he understands what we’re looking for, both from a technique standpoint and kind of what his role is. He’s done a great job in terms of his conditioning and keeping his body where it needs to be for his body to perform at a high level.”
Thumbnail photo via Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports Images