The New England Patriots were smart to reportedly snatch up Alan Branch before he could hit the open market as an unrestricted free agent.

A case could be made that Branch was the Patriots’ 2016 defensive MVP. He was their most consistent performer along their defensive line, played 60 percent of snaps and contributed heavily to the NFL’s third-ranked rushing defense. It would have been difficult for the Patriots to find a similar player to replace Branch’s high level of play and versatility. Branch has the size and length to play anywhere along the Patriots’ interior defensive line.

The Patriots allowed just 88.6 rushing yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry and didn’t allow a 100-yard rusher all season.

Branch is 32 years old but coming off his best NFL season. And as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said, players who are 6-foot-6, 350 pounds and move like Branch don’t exactly grow on trees (though branches do).

“They’re hard to find,” Belichick said back in January. “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’s 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.”

Players with that kind of length, athleticism and girth typically can only be found at the top of the NFL draft, where the Patriots very rarely pick. So, even though Branch likely is nearing the end of his career, finding a player with that unique skill set at an affordable price can be difficult.

Branch likely will continue to combine with Malcom Brown at defensive tackle in the Patriots’ base defense. The two players can continue to rotate in the Patriots’ sub packages when a bigger player is needed. Neither Branch nor Brown are overly productive as pass rushers, but they take up space and blockers, allowing the Patriots’ smaller defensive linemen to get after the quarterback.

Branch won’t light up the stat sheet, play every snap or make an All-Pro team anytime soon, but bringing him back was paramount to maintaining a top-tier rushing defense.

It remains to be seen how the Patriots’ secondary will shake out after they reportedly agreed to terms with top free-agent cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but the middle of their defensive line is set for at least two more years with Branch back in the fold.

Thumbnail photo via Bob DeChiara/USA TODAY Sports Images