On Thursday, the Detroit Lions will open the season against the Kansas City Chiefs on the biggest spotlight there is for Week 1 of the season. The Lions will undoubtedly feature four rookies prominently in that game: first-round picks Jahmyr Gibbs and Jack Campbell, as well as second-round picks Sam LaPorta and Brian Branch.
For the first three, their immediate contributions were expected from the minute they were drafted. Gibbs and Campbell were high talents whose skillsets translate nicely to the next level, while LaPorta filled a big T.J. Hockenson-sized hole at tight end.
By all indications, Branch will start at nickel for Detroit on Thursday, which would be considered a mildly stunning development back in May. The Lions had just signed C.J Gardner-Johnson and it appeared he was headed back to play nickel, while safety Tracy Walker had made an aggressive recovery from his Achilles injury and was slated to start next to Kerby Joseph. Branch, it seemed, was headed for a redshirt year filled with special teams play and subpackage work.
But after a training camp that featured a Branch highlight on a near-daily basis, the Lions changed course. Gardner-Johnson shifted back to safety, while Walker—a leader on this team—was moved to the bench. The Lions couldn’t keep Branch off the field.
While that meteoric rise was certainly surprising to some, just about every person inside the Lions facility was not blindsided by this development. Defensive backs coach Brian Duker, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, and general manager Brad Holmes nearly gave cookie-cutter answers when asked about Branch’s quick development.
“I am not surprised,” Duker said. “We saw his tape and thought he was a really good player on tape. He’s come in and been a really good player, I think. We expected that on his college tape and he’s shown that ability.”
“To be a damn good player,” Glenn said of early expectations for Branch. “I mean we knew that when we drafted him, so it wasn’t a surprise the things that he’s done. We saw him do it at Alabama the whole time, so there’s a reason why we had him graded that high.”
“You’re talking about a kid that played at a high level for one of the more historic programs in college football under an elite head coach in Nick Saban,” Holmes said. “And just the complexity on defense and to play that STAR nickel position, that’s a lot of demands mentally and physically, (so) it’s not a surprise, really.”
Branch, himself, credits that big stage in Alabama for helping him transition to the big leagues in a hurry.
“You’re almost kind of not necessarily a pro, but like a baby pro in a way,” Branch explained. “You have to learn to do things on your own when coaches aren’t around. Just being used to that, I think has helped me transition to the next level.”
Branch will certainly have his hands full in his first NFL action, with Patrick Mahomes, Travis Kelce, and the top NFL passing offense from last year on the docket. But the fact that he’ll even be out there in a starting role is proof the Lions don’t think the moment will be too big for him.
Branch certainly doesn’t sound intimidated.
“Football is football. They’re good, but we’re also a good team, too. May the best team win.”