Patriots defensive tackle Alan Branch, who has started all 10 games this year and has been one of the team’s most consistent defenders, reportedly has been notified that he will be suspended four games for violating the NFL’s policy on substances of abuse.
According to ESPN, Branch’s suspension is for marijuana, and he is appealing the discipline.
Branch, a 10-year NFL veteran, is having one of the best seasons of his career. A 350-pound lane-clogger who isn’t expected to accumulate stats, he has 33 tackles this season, six short of his career high, plus a sack and a forced fumble.
If upheld, the suspension will remove one of the Patriots’ best run defenders from a run defense that has struggled this season. Rookie Vincent Valentine, who played 17 snaps Sunday against the 49ers, will most likely take Branch’s place alongside fellow defensive tackle Malcom Brown. The Patriots also have rookie Woodrow Hamilton at defensive tackle.
The next four games are at the Jets, vs. the Rams, vs. the Ravens, and at the Broncos. Branch would be eligible to return for the Week 16 home game against the Jets.
But the suspension will be especially costly for Branch from a financial standpoint. He will lose four-17ths of his $1.2 million base salary, approximately $282,353. The Patriots will gain that much in cap space this season.
Branch also will miss out on four game-day roster bonuses of $25,000 each ($100,000 total), and the suspension will likely cost him any shot of earning his playing-time incentive bonuses.
Branch can make $250,000 for playing in 50 percent of the team’s snaps this year, another $250,000 for 55 percent, and another $250,000 for 60 percent. He has played in 61 percent of the team’s snaps so far (420 of 687), and it is unlikely that he would be able to hit his markers if he is forced to miss four games.
In total, the suspension will likely cost Branch about $1.13 million, and could hurt his future value. Branch is set to be a free agent after this season after finishing up a two-year deal with a maximum value of $6.4 million, including $1.5 million in unearned incentives.
He originally signed with the Patriots in October 2014. Branch had been available for two months after getting released by the Bills in August of that year following an arrest for driving under the influence.
The league’s substance-abuse policy, which includes a ban on marijuana, is collectively bargained between the NFL Management Council and the NFL Players Association. The policy was revised in 2015 to allow more leeway for marijuana; the threshold for a positive test was raised from 15 to 35 nanograms of THC per milliliter of urine. Major League Baseball’s threshold is 50 ng/ml, and the World Anti-Doping Agency, which does testing for the Olympics, has a threshold of 150 ng/ml.
Additional layers of punishment also were introduced. A first marijuana positive gets a player entered into the NFL’s drug program. A second positive results in a two-game fine, followed by a four-game fine, a four-game suspension, a 10-game suspension, and a one-year minimum ban. The two-game fine and 10-game suspension are levels of punishment only for marijuana violations.
But Branch’s DUI arrest in 2014 likely complicated matters for him. According to reports from 2014, he avoided a two-game suspension for the DUI but was given a two-game fine instead, and entered him into the league’s drug program, if he wasn’t in it already (test results and a player’s status are kept confidential).
All players are tested for substances of abuse between April and August, and if they pass, they do not get tested until the next year. But players who fail tests get entered into the league’s drug program and are tested more frequently, up to 10 times in a calendar month.
Players are kept in Stage One of the drug program for as long as 90 days. A failed test enters the player into Stage Two, where he remains for up to 24 months.
A player in Stage 3 can remain there for the rest of his career, although the league’s medical director can determine after 24 months whether the player deserves to be released.
Branch’s four-game suspension is most likely the combination of the DUI arrest and two failed marijuana tests. A missed test or noncooperation also counts as a failed test.
Branch’s appeal will be heard by a neutral third-party arbitrator appointed jointly by the NFL and NFLPA. Appeal hearings take place on Tuesdays, and decisions are released shortly thereafter, so Branch and the Patriots will likely have resolution to the appeal by the end of this week.