The Detroit Lions selected Alabama safety Brian Branch with the 45th pick in the 2023 NFL Draft after trading up with the Green Bay Packers. Branch was very high on my players to watch list and you’ll soon see why.
For me, it was all about the versatility he brings to the table. Like C.J. Gardner Johnson, Branch not only plays safety, but he can play in the slot too. I mocked him to the Lions in my second mock draft, but I mocked him to the Lions at 18. It’s an absolute steal that the Lions were able to get him at 45.
Don’t just take my word for it. I asked Roll ‘Bama Roll’s Brent Taylor about his thoughts on Branch. Here’s what he had to say:
1. What are your overall thoughts on Branch’s time at Alabama?
“I’ve said for three seasons now that Brian Branch was one of the most underrated and underappreciated players in Nick Saban’s entire tenure at Alabama. It seemed like folks were finally starting to catch on the last few months, so I couldn’t believe he dropped as far as he did in the draft. In any case, Branch came to Alabama and made some offseason headlines as a true freshman that might wind up winning a starting job, but he wound up getting Covid (back in 2020) and missing a couple of weeks leading up to the season, so it put him behind. Eventually, he wound up getting that starting job at the Star (nickel) position in the SEC Championship and went on to be part of that Alabama team eviscerating Notre Dame and Ohio State in the playoffs.
“Branch came back in year 2 to become a full-time starter and did not miss a single tackle. Seriously, look it up. And then his junior year, he was even more involved racking up a whole bunch of tackles, TFLs, and pass deflections.
“To be clear, his role was not a typical safety or a corner. Instead, he basically plays linebacker while also playing cornerback, which is something most teams would have to use different players in different subpackages to accomplish. If you want to read more about it (and what it says about Branch that he got this job as a freshman), please read this article.”
2. What are his strengths?
“First of all, he’s one of the best tacklers to come through Alabama. Which is kind of funny, since he was a WR/CB as a recruit that was absolutely not any good at tackling. But once he got to Alabama, he realized that’s what he needed to work on, and by his sophomore year, he had turned himself into a machine. That kind of work ethic and drive in itself is a major strength for him. Part of what makes his tackling so good is how he positions himself and can work around and shed blockers to make things happen. Even when teams do outside zone runs, he can string along a TE and shed the block to make the tackle like a legitimate Sam linebacker.
“On top of that, he’s got amazing hands. If you get some free time, go watch him his high school highlights as a receiver. He had multiple leaping one-handed catches that rival OBJ. And while he didn’t get many opportunities to show that off from his position in college, any time the ball was around, he was making a play on it.
“Finally, he’s really, really quick in short area bursts and a fluid runner. That translates to being able to cover all types of routes, whether they are out-breaking whips or flipping and running down the seam (check out him covering Ole Miss second-round receiver Jonathan Mingo for the game-saving pass deflection last season), being able to change from a zone drop to attacking a ball carrier, and even being a menace as a punt returner if needed.”
Brian Branch at 15 and prosper.— Brennen Rupp (@Brennen_Rupp) April 18, 2023
"But he didn't run really, really fast in a straight line."
FYI, this is Branch against Jonathan Mingo, who everybody and their grandma on Packers Twitter is pounding the table for.
Brian Branch is a good football player. https://t.co/Zf6wlNFb5X pic.twitter.com/Mk2DCJJQyg
3. What are his weaknesses?
“As you’d expect from his 40-yard dash, he’s not a guy that you’re going to line up on a deep threat receiver and tell him to defend go-balls down the sideline. If you want to knock him for that, that’s fine, but also realize that you’d be asking him to play a position that he’s not suited for, so that’s kind of your own fault.
“The other weakness is his actual size. At 190 pounds, he was fine in college, but I worry his playstyle may have a few struggles translating to the NFL with everyone being bigger. Of course, he could easily bulk up to around 200-205 I think, and still play the same role.”
4. This feels like the steal of the draft. Why do you think Branch fell this far?
“Because folks saw a 4.58 40-yard dash and weren’t smart enough to realize Branch plays much faster than that, and if you play him in the position that is a game-changing position, it doesn’t matter. It’s a HUGE steal, in my opinion.”
5. Can Branch make an immediate impact with a suddenly packed secondary?
“Absolutely. Put him on the field, and your run defense is immediately better. As is your pass defense, since you can now defend the run from nickel formations like you would from a base defense. Succinctly put, Branch changes the numbers, eliminates opposing “mismatch” threats, and allows you the flexibility to get your other best guys on the field how you want them more often, rather than the opposing offense dictating your personnel to you.”