Patriots check off important part of to-do list with Alan Branch deal

Alan Branch, who turned 32 in December, had another productive season with the Patriots. Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The New England Patriots and defensive tackle Alan Branch have agreed on a two-year contract extension, sources tell ESPN. This continues the team's positive momentum in the early parts of free agency.

ESPN 150 ranking: 66th

Grade: A. Branch was the team's best defensive tackle in 2016 and had arguably the best season of his 10-year career, playing 60.1 percent of the defensive snaps, which was a credit to his stamina at 6-foot-6 and 350 pounds. While he is entering his 11th NFL season and just turned 32 in December, there is no reason to think he shouldn't be able to duplicate that performance over the next two years with the same work ethic, overall approach and good health. Branch is valuable because he can play a variety of techniques, is excellent against the run, and pushes the pocket in the pass rush. The alternatives weren't as good for the Patriots at this level of the market (around $6 million per season max value), and analysts consider it a weak draft for big-bodied defensive tackles, so this was a high priority for the club.

What it means: The Patriots maintain continuity at the heart of the line of scrimmage on defense as they return their top three players -- Branch, Malcom Brown (2015 first-round pick) and Vincent Valentine (2016 third-rounder). The club could end up carrying four (or possibly five) interior defensive tackles on their initial 53-man roster depending on their scheme intentions, with Woodrow Hamilton and Darius Kilgo the next players on the depth chart. That basically means this position isn't a high priority personnel-wise moving forward.

Branch's view: In a recent interview on Sirius XM NFL Radio, Branch said things changed for him in 2014 when the Patriots first signed him during the season. He hoped to return but said finances would be part of his consideration. "I revamped my love of football even more so since I've been with the Patriots," Branch told Sirius. "I'm just ready to play some good ball. Usually in the offseason, it seems like it goes too fast, but I'm champing at the bit to get out there again to start playing."