By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) -- All this talk of the Patriots "phasing out" and possibly even trading Malcolm Butler has me wondering whether everyone's focusing on the wrong player right now. It could really be Alan Branch who's on the block.
Perhaps you think the answer is both, as Branch appears to have fallen out of favor with the Patriots coaching staff and Butler is unlikely to stay in New England after the 2017 season. But when comparing the two, Butler has a much better chance of overcoming his reduced role to start the season and playing better as the season goes along. Branch's track record suggests that he lacks Butler's focus and discipline in that department, and it could mean that the Patriots could already be preparing to move on from him in the middle of the season.
Branch's plummeting snap count is usually how it starts.
Many are pointing to last season's Jamie Collins trade as a reason why diminishing snap counts could be a precursor to a trade. After playing in 98-100 percent of defensive snaps in all but five games played from 2014-15, Collins played the first four games of the 2016 season without coming off the field. But his poor performance in Week 4 last year was followed by 52 snaps (83 percent) in Week 5 against Cleveland, a DNP due to a hip injury in Week 6 against the Bengals, 65 snaps (89 percent) in Week 7 at the Steelers, and 47 snaps (61 percent) in Week 8 at the Bills. He was traded to the Browns the very next day.
In Branch's case, the drop-off in snaps has been way more pronounced than both Collins and Malcolm Butler. After typically playing between 50 and 75 percent of snaps in 2016, Branch had a seemingly normal workload in the Patriots' season-opening 42-27 loss to the Chiefs. But he played poorly in 42 snaps (63 percent), ceding some playing time to rookie defensive tackle Adam Butler (20 snaps). Last Sunday in New Orleans was when Branch really fell off, playing just six snaps (9 percent). Lawrence Guy and Adam Butler got the starts, while Butler played 45 snaps (69 percent).
Former Patriots tight end Michael Hoomanawanui found himself in a comparable situation in 2015. His snap count often fluctuated between 25 and 50 in 2014, but he played just 23 combined in the first two weeks of the following season while Michael Williams started to get more work. Just days after "Hooman" was a surprise inactive in Week 3, the Patriots shipped him to the Saints for defensive tackle Akiem Hicks - a sneaky-good deal that would have earned a much greater legacy had the Patriots won the Super Bowl that year.
Could a similar move happen with Branch in the coming weeks? If he's straight-up inactive against the Texans on Sunday, get your eyeball emojis ready. It's hard to believe that Branch, a 32-year-old defensive lineman with a recent history of off-field problems, would carry much trade value around the league - but it's not unprecedented for a player of his age.
There's 31-year-old Marshawn Lynch, who came out of retirement to join the Raiders after they worked out a minor trade with the Seahawks. The Eagles traded 33-year-old guard Allen Barbre to the Broncos for a conditional seventh-round pick in July and the Cardinals traded 31-year-old center Tony Bergstrom to the Ravens just before the start of the season, also for a conditional seventh. All three have been active in each game so far in 2017.
If Branch isn't going to play, then it would behoove Belichick to send him somewhere that he will, even if it's just for a low pick. But it's also possible that he could swing a Hicks-esque trade and swap Branch for a player who has seen a similar drop in value/usage with his current team - perhaps a linebacker or receiver?
Malcolm Butler may be in that same spot and would certainly be much more valuable in a trade, but he's still more valuable to the Patriots for this season than any future draft pick. He still has the full trust of his teammates, and there's reason to be optimistic that he can rebound from his slow start and have a Wes Welker-like resurgence. Branch cannot be afforded that same level of confidence, and it's why he could be the one who is on his way out of Foxboro.
Matt Dolloff is a writer/producer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, CBS, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @Dolloff985 and email him at email@example.com.
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