The Detroit Lions traded with the Green Bay Packers in the second round, acquiring pick No. 45, and giving up picks No. 38 and 159. With the No. 45 pick, the Lions got an absolute steal by selecting Alabama defensive back Brian Branch.
Branch’s role at Bama (Star) is a hybrid position that has been popularized by a slew of impressive, rangy defensive backs, like Minkah Fitzpatrick and C.J. Gardner-Johnson—who Branch will get to learn from in Detroit.
So Erik, if he’s a steal, why did he fall?
The immediate answer to that is likely because teams value off-the-ball players less than ones that are on the line of scrimmage or on the perimeter. But there may have also been some concerns over his overall athleticism, where he registered an average RAS score of 5.27.
The Lions tend to prefer players who are above-average athletes (RAS scores over 8.0) but Branch is an exception to this rule due to his intangibles.
A hybrid safety/nickel corner in the NFL, Branch found starting lineup as a true freshman at Alabama, something that is rare to find in a Nick Saban-coached secondary. He was lofted to this role early in his career because his football intelligence is off the charts, and The Athletic’s Dane Brugler called him “an extension of Saban on the field.”
Along with a high level of intelligence comes impressive instincts. Branch uses those instincts to anticipate plays early in zone coverage, while also sticking with his man in press. His physicality in run support is both technically sound and fierce. As a blitzer, he aggressively attacks downhill with little wasted movement and a stalking mentality.
While Branch’s long speed (4.58 40-yard dash at the Combine) is limited, his short-area quickness is elite, which is why he will likely see the majority of his snaps inside and near the line of scrimmage. His well-rounded skills allow him to match up with various types of receivers, as well as tight ends and running backs.
Branch’s positional range is vast. He can play as a safety, nickel corner, and coverage linebacker. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn will be able to use Branch as a matchup weapon as a rookie—his intelligence will help him find the field early—and he has the potential to be Gardner-Johnson insurance in 2024 if he and the Lions can’t reach an extension.
Branch may not start a game in 2023, but his positional range, and ability to match up with a variety of offensive skill players, will give Glenn an asset he hasn’t had in his previous two seasons.