FanPost

Brian Branch draft profile

Alabama safety or cornerback, Brian Branch, is one of the highest ranked prospects in this year's draft. On multiple boards he's listed as a top 10 overall player. Normally, I wouldn't bother doing a fanpost about a player ranked so high, because the Rams don't pick until early in the 2nd round. In this case, I believe he's worth looking at, because there are several reasons Branch could fall far enough to either still be on the board early in the 2nd round or be within reach for a Rams trade up into the lower part of the 1st round.

First, there is the issue of position value. Branch likely cannot play outside CB in the NFL. He was used primarily as a slot CB (STAR position) in college at Alabama. On most draft boards he's listed as a safety. NFL teams generally don't draft safeties or slot CBs super early. In Mel Kiper's recent mock draft, he has Branch going 30th overall, near the very end of the 1st round. The Rams hold the 36th overall slot.

Secondly, I feel that Branch is overrated by some of the draft experts. My NFL comp for him is Jevon Holland, who was the 36th overall pick in the 2021 draft. If Branch went 36th overall this year, he'd be the Rams selection. Last year, Dax Hill and Jalen Pitre were both hybrid safety/slot CB type prospects. Hill was the 31st overall pick, while Pitre was the 37th overall selection.

Experts have compared Branch to Antoine Winfield Jr. of the Bucs. AWJ was the 45th overall pick in 2020. Lamarcus Joyner (41st overall in 2014, Rams) and Budda Baker also are comparable prospects. Baker was the 36th overall pick in 2017. Baker has been a good player for the Arizona Cardinals. Three times he's been named an All Pro. Five times he's been named to the Pro Bowl. Are you ready for a surprising fact? Budda Baker has never had a PFF grade in any season of his career as high as Taylor Rapp's 2022 season.

If Brian Branch had the same size as Harrison Smith (29th overall, 2012), I don't think he gets out of the 1st round. One of my concerns with him is he doesn't have prototypical size for an NFL safety. Even though he's listed at 6 feet tall, Branch has a narrow build, he doesn't have the bulk and wingspan that you'd like to see in a defensive back.

I question whether Branch is a good enough prospect to draft in the top half of the 1st round, but perhaps his value would be perfect for where the Rams are picking and since the Rams could be in the market for a safety (maybe even 2) in this year's draft, Branch could be a prime Rams draft target.

Steelers Steal Their Guy, but Not in the Draft

In 2015, I did not expect the Rams to draft Todd Gurley. I thought the team had more important roster needs than RB. One position I felt the Rams needed to address was CB. There were many CBs in that draft that I felt had potential and one of them was a slot CB named Senquez Golson, taken in the 2nd round by the Steelers. He was drafted one slot before Rob Havenstein.

Golson had shoulder surgery and missed his entire rookie season. The following year, he had a Lisfranc foot injury and missed his entire 2nd NFL season. On the very first day of padded practices in training camp of his 3rd season, Golson hurt his hamstring. The Steelers waived him. He failed to catch on with 2 other NFL teams. Not only did Golson never appear in a single regular season NFL game, he never even played a single snap of any NFL preseason game. Golson is possibly one of the worst 2nd round draft picks of all time.

Late in the 2016 season, the Steelers added to their PS an UDFA slot CB named Mike Hilton. The Steelers were his 3rd NFL team that year. In 2017, the same year that Golson's NFL career was effectively ending, Hilton became the starting nickel CB for the Steelers. He burst onto the scene with a 83.3 PFF grade. Hilton became known as a dangerous blitzer from the slot. Over 4 seasons with the Steelers he had a total of 9.5 sacks, 23 QB hits, and 30 TFLs. Hilton joined the Bengals as a free agent in 2021 and has continued to be a very good defender. He had a 73.4 PFF grade in 2022.

The Steelers once had one of the best offensive lines in the NFL, known for physical and hard nosed run blocking. In recent years, that OL experienced a slow and steady decline, to the point that they became one of the worst OLs in the NFL. They were 31st in run blocking in 2020. They ranked 26th overall in 2021. Imagine if they had drafted Havenstein instead of Golson in 2015. Their OL would have been better and there wouldn't have been a hole at slot CB, because Hilton as an UDFA played like he had been a 2nd round pick.

One reason I'm reluctant to push for drafting slot CBs too early is we've seen quite a few good nickel CBs come from late rounds or the UDFA area. Some of those guys were very lightly regarded as draft prospects and seemed to come out of nowhere. Gil Brandt made a list of the best available UDFAs at the conclusion of the 2016 draft. There are 56 DBs on his list and Mike Hilton didn't make the cut as either a CB or a S. The Jaguars (Hilton's original team) signed another UDFA slot CB that year who was much better known, Briean Boddy-Calhoun. He had a decent career for an UDFA. The Patriots decided that Hilton wasn't worth keeping even on their PS. In the 2nd round of that 2016 draft, the Pats drafted a slot CB named Cyrus Jones from Alabama. He had a disappointing rookie season, then suffered a serious knee injury in a preseason game in year 2, becoming a costly draft bust for the Pats.

If either the Jags or the Pats had had the foresight to keep Branch, it would have been like stealing a Day 2 draft pick. Instead, they let him go and it redounded to the benefit of the Steelers. The NFL draft is only one slice of the roster building pie. In some cases, seemingly trivial roster transactions, like signing to your practice squad a street FA like Hilton, who all the other 31 teams didn't want and left unclaimed, can be just as valuable as exercising a 2nd round draft pick.

Background

Name: Brian Branch. Turns 22 years old in October. Early entrant, true junior

School: Alabama. Studied hospitality.

Size: Listed 6 feet tall, 193 pounds. Per NFLDB 4.44 sec (40 time), Per TDN 5'11'' tall, 215, 4.5 sec (40 time)

4 star recruit, from Fayetteville, GA. Played safety, WR and special teams in high school.

2020: 27 tackles, 7 PDs, 2 INTs, also played special teams

2021: 55 tackles, 9 PDs, 1 sack

2022: 90 tackles, 7 PDs, 3 sacks, 2 INTs

Per PFF, over 2 year period (2020 and 2021 seasons) only had 1 missed tackle and was the only college defender to have tackling grades over 90 in both seasons.

Practiced every DB position prior to 2021 season, worked on his press technique. Alabama primarily used him in the STAR (nickel CB) position, typically in the slot. In some formations he was close to the end of the DL, near the box. Once in a while he was the outside CB, the deep S, or rotated to safety from the slot after the snap.

Had undisclosed injury against Arkansas in 2022. I wonder if it was a concussion, because the play that appeared to knock him out of the game he was trying to tackle the WR when friendly fire from the LB hit him in the side of the helmet.

Has upbeat personality in interviews, polite, comes across as being focused, student of game. One answer I liked is he said early in his career he was results oriented, but learned to become more detail oriented. Good sense of humor.

ESPN 23rd overall prospect

CBSSports 10th overall

Shane Hallam 36th overall

Brian Bosarge 41st overall

PFF 10th overall

Drafttek 25th overall

PFN 6th overall

NFLDB 22nd overall

TDN 16th overall

Luke Easterling mock draft 18th overall

Mel Kiper mock draft 30th overall

NFLDB: Very good in zone. Can emerge as starter in 2 or 3 years (when I read that, I was like "What? He's a possible middle of the 1st round pick. He can't start as a rookie?) Physical run supporter, like Antoine Winfield Jr. Very good ball skills. Stays low in backpedal, click and close ability. Gets head around. Good length and strength. Inconsistent physicality vs run and taking on blocks. Often hesitant in coverage, gets grabby.

TDN: Always around the ball. Most comfortable as a hybrid nickel CB/linebacker. Violent tackler. Best in zone. Disruptive blitzer. Beaten in man coverage from slot on vertical routes and WRs cross his face. 2nd round grade.

Strengths

Textbook, wrap up tackler with helmet in proper position as he contacts the runner. Strikes target with force. Arms are like heavy clamps. Few legitimate missed tackles on tape in the games I watched. One "missed tackle" to me shouldn't count, because he slipped inside a WR block and nearly made a spectacular TFL, but the RB got away from him. Maybe that went on his stat sheet, but to me it isn't a "bad" play. On the play he got hurt, technically he missed the tackle on the WR, but the 2 defenders also ran into each other, so I counted it as a "maybe" missed tackle.

Very strong tackle on RB catching an arrow route, solid wrap up high, then drives the RB out of bound, zero YAC. Like Madden game "hit stick" can lower boom on WRs or RBs.

Patient and disciplined tackler. WR has him 1 vs 1 in space, heading towards sideline, the head fake by WR fails to get CB to bite as Branch maintains proper angle, then arms securely go around legs of WR for tackle. RB is 1 vs 1 on him, head fake doesn't work, Branch is facemask to facemask and wraps him up high around the shoulder pads, pulls him to the ground, very good grip strength. I'm curious about his hand size, because he has an abnormally strong tackle grip relative to his overall size.

Plays bigger than his size when setting the edge. KState put Cooper Beebe, the big lineman, in at FB and Branch wasn't afraid of attacking upfield and taking that block on head to head.

While he might not have elite speed, seems to have good straight line speed on field. Flashed speed burst to pursue runner to sideline.

Good effective length. Uses hands well to disengage from WR blocks. Uses physicality, quickness and anticipatory skills to get by WR blocks. Slipped around edge of block on screen pass and the WR had to resort to holding him. Works to get around blocks even on backside of play, doesn't get lazy. Triggers and attacks WR blocks, doesn't just wait for them to climb to him or remain content to hold his place and watch the runner. Playing inside coverage technique vs slot WR, when he sees the play going outside does a great job jumping to the other side of the WR to contain the edge and force the RB to cut inside, and once the RB commits he counters back inside the WR's block to help constrict the lane for his teammates. Wide toss, CB tries to shoot upfield past the WR to make the tackle, but can't get cleanly by and misses the RB, but by eliminating the blocker at least helps the other defenders push the RB out of bounds.

Left tackle blocking him on run, the CB steps upfield, then uses a spin countermove back to the inside to stuff the RB at the LOS. Took on a left guard, shoves away the LG, then pursues down the LOS to tackle the RB going up the middle.

There's a play where I wonder if the experts critiqued him, because he doesn't aggressively attack the WR block, but in my opinion he did his job fine. He contained the edge instead of risking getting shoved out of the gap by the WR or missing the RB, keeping his outside arm free, forcing the RB to cut inside. It isn't his fault the LB missed the tackle. So, I didn't have a big issue with him on that rep. He's just not a big, strong guy, so expecting him to completely run over the WR is asking quite a bit from a defender who is essentially a slot CB.

Great leaping ability both when in coverage and when attacking the LOS on blitzes. Can jump up high in the air to deflect passes.

Very frequently used as a blitzer, mostly from the slot, but sometimes up the middle. Can defeat pass blocks, not just one of those guys who gets sacks when 100% unblocked. Converted speed to power and ran over RB in pass pro. Multiple plays showed ability to use his hands to defeat OT's punch and bend the edge to get to the QB. Times his blitzes well. Good speed and decent cornering ability. Spin move as blitzer vs RB block. Spin move vs TE block nearly results in sack, but CB stumbles and falls down before he can get to the QB. Medium 3rd down run up middle by RB, Branch comes crashing in on a blitz, runs around the LG with nice agility and nearly makes a spectacular TFL, but misses the RB.

Smart player with instincts to blow up plays. WR bunch set tight splits, RPO handoff to RB, the CB attacks immediately off the snap and penetrates by the WR for a TFL in the backfield. Takes good angles to avoid colliding with other defenders on rubs. Near the GL, WR pretends to rub, but then releases inside, going into the end zone, Branch undercuts the route and appears to be in great position for an INT, he's directly in front of the WR, but the ball gets deflected by a different player at the LOS. Attacked downhill vs option play, stuffs QB for TFL.

Late in 4th quarter vs Ole Miss, offense down to their final play, 4th down, game on the line, a TD could win, they go to their draft prospect WR, Jonathan Mingo, running a post vs Branch, but CB is all over it, blankets the WR, pass is incomplete, Bama holds on for the win.

Critical point in 4th quarter of tight game, he rips ball out of RB's hands for a fumble, but I think they whistled the play dead. He has no official career FFs, but I'll give him one for evaluation purposes and it could have resulted in an important turnover.

Communicates quickly with other defenders in response to pre-snap motion or to alert them post-snap as to need to switch coverage onto a receiver going across the field. Good awareness to diagnose whether it is a pass or run play. Adjusts his positioning to maintain proper leverage against potential runs and short passes based on what he sees developing. If there is pre-snap motion, generally doesn't get confused as to his gap assignment or his containment duties. Eyes scan appropriately after the snap. On play where there was both motion and misdirection, he didn't lose edge containment, not confused or distracted by the eye candy.

Excellent special teams potential. Played ST in college, good speed and tackling ability for coverage units. Physicality and effective length to be a vise, blocking against opponent's gunner.

Younger than average prospect. I'm not aware of many serious injuries. Seems to have good football character, work ethic, listens to coaches.

Weaknesses

I feel that his penchant for making highlight reel splash plays contributes to him being overrated by experts. He has great highlights, but when you dig through his tape, he's not the dominant force you might think based just off his highlights.

Has man coverage limitations. Played on talented defense, protected within scheme. Used frequently as blitzer, which reduced the number of coverage snaps and on quite a few other coverage snaps he had help from another defender, either a S or a LB, effectively bracket coverage, requiring him only to cover 1/2 the WR, not facing a 2 way go. He could shade the WR to one side, play trail coverage or just lay off and not be tight to the WR. One of his highlight plays, he undercuts a route, jumps up and deflects the ball. He's able to do that, because there is a safety over the top of the route. Able to jump route in zone coverage for an INT, partly because a different defender was in coverage inside of his guy, freeing him up to gamble. 3rd&7, Branch is playing very soft coverage, big cushion to slot WR, then moves 2 yards behind the line to gain as WR comes off LOS, then cuts inside, the only reason the catch doesn't go for a 1st down is the coverage has the safety drive on the route from the middle of the field and the S hits the WR just short of the marker.

He's in bracket coverage, shading to the inside with a different DB on the outside, it is 3rd down in the red zone. When the WR breaks to the inside, Branch is too upright in his stance and can't mirror, so he just blatantly grabs the WR to avoid getting beaten. This shouldn't happen, because the CB is sitting inside of the WR the entire time, it is inexcusable to get beaten inside on that play. Shading slot WR to inside, stick route, CB blankets him, but has hands all over him 9 yards from LOS, appears to be pulling on WR's shoulder pad. To me that would have been illegal contact, holding or a PI penalty in the NFL.

Triple move release at the LOS beats him and he leans to the outside, just grabs the WR as the WR cuts to the inside. Beaten on pivot route. On in-cut, pass interference penalty when he grabs the inside arm of the WR and turns him prior to the pass arriving.

Upright in his stance, not sticky against quickness from the slot, has hip tightness. Typically uses shuffle steps in his technique, not a true pedal. In zone coverage, he's clunky and stiff flipping his hips or trying to gain depth while in pedal. For an example of a more fluid slot CB, see Elijah Molden, 3rd round 2021. Super upright even when in zone coverage, which restricts his ability to cover ground efficiently and make explosive change of directions. Needs to improve instincts to recognize route combinations so that he can squeeze passing windows better when the WR is behind him and he can't see the WR.

Critical play late in 4th quarter in close game, WR runs corner route from slot, Branch with his back to the QB panics, unable to sink his hips and turn to play the ball, just yanks the WR for an obvious PI and since the pass by the QB was left to the inside, not properly placed to the outside, if the CB had turned around he would have had a great chance at trying for an INT.

Sometimes puts his hands on the WR deep downfield to feel where they are or to stay attached.

Beaten over the top on deep post route, not able to effectively carry the WR downfield. Staying with fast WRs on vertical routes could be an issue at NFL level.

One of my primary concerns with Branch is very often has wasted steps in his transition trying to match the WR's break on shorter routes. I'm not convinced that this is entirely a technique issue that can be ironed out with just more experience and coaching. My fear is that this is a product of him being afraid of getting beaten deep and inherent lack of flexibility and fluidity in his hips. On a play where he didn't take a wasted step, he showed good closing burst, drove on slant route and arrived simultaneous with the pass. There was another play where he backpedaled, had a good stance, then was able to mirror the WR's in-breaking route. So, it isn't like he never was able to drive on routes in front of him, he just couldn't do it with the frequency and consistency you'd expect to see in a great slot DB.

Basic stick route, the CB should be able to plant his back foot and drive forward on the route, but Branch takes 3 steps instead of 1 to shift his momentum in the proper direction, causing him to be a split second late to close on the WR. Basic stick route, the CB shuffle has his right foot behind and when he sees the break his left foot is in front, his body in a sprinter's stance. Instead of driving forward from this body position, he moves his left foot backwards, in other words the very first step he takes as he drives on the route all Branch is doing is running in place, he's not actually covering any ground moving forward. He's literally taking one step back with his left foot, then one step forward with his right foot and his front foot is exactly the same depth as his starting position, just with his right foot now in front, not his left foot.

Basic 5 step slant. Instead of driving on it directly by pushing off with his outside foot, the CB takes 2 unnecessary backward shuffle steps as he tries to mirror the break, resulting in the WR gaining inside leverage. At first glance, I wonder if many people would even notice this, because in terms of distance there isn't much "separation" between the WR and the CB, but in the NFL this is "open", because the CB is stacked behind the WR and has no chance at contesting the catch point.

WR runs short in-cut, the CB rises out of his stance with his hips high and can't keep WR from gaining inside leverage. Fake WR bubble screen, then the lead WR runs a slant, Branch widens anticipating the screen and is upright in his stance, then his inside foot steps back as the QB throws, a split second late driving on the slant.

Comeback route, the CB opens his hips to the inside, then takes 2 extra steps, easy catch for the WR. Another comeback route, CB takes one extra step backwards, unable to break up pass. Third down pass, basic 3 step slant, CB gives the WR a huge cushion, then 1 extra backwards step, WR gains inside leverage.

Curl route, the CB takes an extra side shuffle step, too late to drive on route to break it up.

Branch was the CB beaten by Hyatt on a slant route for the tying TD late in the 4th quarter of the Tennessee game. On this play, Branch give Hyatt a big cushion, then at the break, Branch's inside foot steps backwards as he tries to break inside. Instead of being in proper phase with the WR, he's now slightly behind, so when the ball arrives he can't contest, all he can do is drag the WR down from behind as they land in the end zone.

Doesn't have great stopping power, size or bulk as tackler. Can be dragged for extra yardage after initial contact. Struggles against a bigger opponent with a long stiff arm, because they can hold him at bay, making it difficult for him to get his arms around them. On 3rd&14, I don't understand why his coverage was so soft, but receiver is all alone underneath for the catch and runs upfield, Branch hits him 4 yards short of the marker, but the runner falls forward, very close to the line to gain. Hits RB 5 yards from LOS, part of a scrum, but the OL pushes and pile surges forward for at least 5 more yards.

4th down pass to the flat to a big TE, Branch tries to tackle him high, arms around the shoulder pads in a big bear hug, face to face, contact 3 yards short of the marker, but TE drives with legs and has CB on skates to 1 yard short of marker, but 3 other Bama defenders come to help and they work together to drive the TE backwards, otherwise it probably would have resulted in a first down. Branch did fine relative to his size, even as he was getting pushed backwards, he gather his feet under him to try to stay upright and maintain leverage, but he's just not a big guy, especially against TEs and RBs in the NFL who are going to have superior size and power relative to the college opponents he faced.

Lacks desired size and length to effectively set the edge against bigger TEs and OL. Has a linear, narrow build. On critical play in overtime, gets knocked to the ground by RB block, freeing up the QB to run for a TD. Limited wingspan could make it more difficult for him to get PBUs or match up against really tall WRs and TEs.

Doesn't read long 3rd down play warning signs based on down and distance. If it is a long 3rd down and you're a safety near the LOS, you should anticipate possible screens and draws, especially when you are on an Alabama team with great pass rushers on the DL. Isn't that obvious? Just common sense. Don't just attack the pocket and run right by the RB. 3rd & 10, Branch comes on a blitz right up the middle, there is a dump pass to the RB in the flat, but the CB overruns the play and is out of position, allowing the RB to very easily pick up the first down. IMO, this is a missed tackle, even though it doesn't count as one on the stats. Branch should have anticipated what the offense would do, kept an eye on the RB and broken off his blitz based on what was developing. Long 3rd down, he overruns a shovel pass to the RB. 3rd down, the CB charges up the middle on a blitz, not noticing that the RB faked a block and released to the flat, very fortunate that other defenders reacted well and prevented the first down.

Playmaking instincts sometimes fail him, or he makes mental errors. Motion by WR to the other side of the field. As Branch goes to the other side, it looks like he was supposed to help carry the TE up the middle, but he doesn't do this, covering empty space in the zone for no reason, making the QB's pass easy. GL situation, 4th down from the 2 yard line. Branch is stacked behind the LB facing the right side of the offense, who is on the TE. Play action fake to RB to the left. Branch takes a step to the middle of the field as the TE pretends to block the LB, then releases to the flat, towards the front pylon of the end zone. The LB falls down and the TE is all alone, Branch is way too far off to do anything. I consider this to be poor situational anticipation, because some type of bootleg pass to the other side of the play fake is a very common type of action on a 4th down, if you are reading your keys the way the TE was blocking tips off that something is up, because why would he seal outside to the right on a run designed to go to the left?

Bunch set, tight split. Appears to be mass confusion as to the coverage, because Branch starts to track the WR at the top of the bunch, going inside, but he's too close to the LB, then starts to go outside to a different WR, but the outside CB is covering him and by that point the 3rd WR is cutting to the inside behind Branch and I can't quite tell, but it looks like Branch clotheslines him to try to prevent that WR from getting open.

He made a TFL on a run play by aggressively attacking upfield and it looked to me like on the next possession the offense just repeated the same concept, but this time faked the run and had his WR release deep behind him, Branch bites on the fake initially, then doesn't have the instincts to hustle back and gain depth to get under the route, so the WR is super wide open, the opponent using his aggression against him.

Offense floods his area of the zone, because there is a RB short in the flat, an intermediate crosser coming across the field, then a deeper WR behind him running a deep out route. Branch turns his back to the QB and runs towards the deep WR. QB dumps the ball to the RB, the intermediate WR blocks the LB, Branch is too far away to provide assistance as the RB runs up the middle of the field for 8 yards.

Switch release, Branch and the other CB are confused who has which WR as they both go after the same WR, allowing the other WR to run down the field by himself. CBs nearly collide with one another, then Branch panics and just grabs the 2nd WR with 2 hands around the waist to prevent both WRs from being wide open on deep vertical routes.

QB fakes a pitch to RB, then starts to scramble, then stops in the front of the pocket, looking to throw. Branch came forward, thinking it might be a run, then stops when he sees QB pull up, but by this point the slot WR is now behind him. Branch's eyes are 100% locked on the QB, he has absolutely no clue where his WR is located.

Two handed push out of bounds on ball carrier who had feet on the white.

Motor doesn't always run hot. He's a "jogger" who will ease up and relax prior to the whistle or the runner being down if he thinks other defenders have it handled and are making the tackle. Many times when he's close enough to run to the pile or help make the tackle he'll just hang back and see what happens. I don't like that in a safety. I want the safety to go after the ball like a hungry dog eyeing a juicy steak. Scrum with several defenders on one side pushing and multiple offensive linemen on the other side trying to push the runner forward. Branch nonchalantly is just walking towards the pile and only at the very end does he join in and help push, by my count he was the 8th defender to join in, and one of the other defenders was on the ground, because he missed the tackle, so he had an excuse. Goal to go situation, the RB goes up the middle, a defender grabs him by the waist and is trying to pull him backwards while 2 other guys right at the GL try to keep him from getting in the end zone. Branch is right next to the action, but has no sense of urgency, only gently helping push. I'm thinking "Go punch or rip the ball out of the RB's hands. Put your shoulder into it. Do something! Don't just stand there and act like your mental powers of persuasion will convince the RB to turn around and not score the TD." Another scrum starts with RB at about the 6 yard line, then surges forward, Branch just watching, and when does he finally join in with half hearted effort? The 2 yard line.

Overall level of aggression and physicality can be inconsistent. Short yardage run near GL, CB follows player in motion across the formation, but when his guy blocks down, the CB doesn't aggressively fill at the point of attack. Not enough urgency at times to run across the formation to follow his guy in motion. Is Brian Branch too much of a "nice guy" on the field? He's capable of making strong tackles, but when you watch him play, he doesn't have a true enforcer's mentality. I don't want him going headhunting or drawing personal foul penalties, but there are times in a football game where you have to step up and rise to challenges, especially when the offense is about to score a TD.

Critical juncture late in 4th quarter his team up by 6 points, Ole Miss driving for potential game winning TD. The RB (Judkins, the freshman) breaks into 2nd level, 1 vs 1 head on with Branch. RB head fakes inside, Branch flies by, completely whiffing as the RB cuts outside, bursting into open field for about 35 yard gain. Zone coverage, pass to the flat in front of him. Branch comes flying in, almost entirely whiffs on tackle, but barely gets a piece of the WR and the WR loses his balance and stumbles forward. Technically he made that tackle, but in my book that's a missed tackle, just lucky the WR fell down instead of continuing to run. His WR goes in motion, CB following across the formation, then ball gets snapped and the WR becomes sift blocker as RB runs up the middle, resulting in Branch being 1 vs 1 on the RB. Branch almost completely whiffs on the tackle as RB uses a spin move, but barely trips up the RB, who falls to the ground. Like the other play, even though this isn't a missed tackle for statistical purposes, I'm counting it as a miss for draft evaluation purposes, because Branch hardly touched the guy, mostly just luck the RB fell down.

Draft Grade and Pro Comp

2nd round grade. Jevon Holland (Early 2nd round 2021, 36th overall, Miami Dolphins, Oregon)

The way some experts have Brian Branch ranked, you'd think they were talking about a player more like Jamal Adams (6th overall, 2017), Jalen Ramsey (5th overall, 2016) or Eric Berry (5th overall, 2010). I loved Eric Berry. Brian Branch is a good prospect, but he's not Jalen Ramsey.

Brian Branch isn't in that mold, he isn't a prototypical NFL safety. I think he's more in the vein of guys like Lamarcus Joyner. For years, the Rams went back and forth as to how best to use Joyner, whether to play him at safety or at cornerback. If you play Branch in the slot, similar to how the Rams have had Ramsey playing the STAR position, it puts Branch closer to the action where he can blitz the QB, tackle RBs and blow up WR screens. The downside is he's going to have to be in man coverage in the slot. I think he could get picked on in coverage, especially early in his career.

If you move him to a deep safety position, this could cover up some of his pass coverage limitations. He has ball skills to get INTs, he's a smart player, he's a very good tackler, so it might work. On the other hand, he has almost no experience playing as a starting deep safety and if he's on the back end he'll likely have less opportunities to blitz. Plus, if his change of direction ability proves to be poor, he might get out of position and give up big plays as the last line of defense.

Stats from PFR, this is how various metrics for the following safeties compare over their respective careers:

Budda Baker (last 5 seasons): 73.8% completions, 7.87 yards per target, 5.0% TD rate, 9.4% missed tackles

Antoine Winfield Jr: 71.8% completions, 9.30 yards per target, 9.2% TD rate, 6.8% missed tackles

Taylor Rapp: 69.8% completions, 6.95 yards per target, 5.2% TD rate, 6.8% missed tackles

Darnell Savage Jr.: 62.4% completions, 8.93 yards per target, 8.8% TD rate, 11.6% missed tackles

Jevon Holland: 70.7% completions, 10.4 yards per target, 8.5% TD rate, 7.8% missed tackles

I included Savage as an example of a player who is considered to be a poor performer. Notice his particularly high rate of missed tackles and his relatively high yards per target numbers. Out of all of those safeties, Taylor Rapp has the lowest yards per target number and is tied for the lowest rate of missed tackles. Branch has better long speed than Rapp, but Rapp is a bigger player than Branch. Both DBs have a similar overall profiles in the sense that they are very secure tacklers, but both have pass coverage limitations, especially if used in man coverage.

Savage was the 21st overall pick, while Rapp was a late 2nd round selection, but over his rookie contract Rapp ended up being a better player than Savage. If you just go by draft board rankings, you might think there is an enormous difference in the expected performance level of Brian Branch vs Taylor Rapp. I'm not sure the gap is really that big, especially if we're talking about Branch as a rookie or in year 2 compared with a more experienced Rapp. Perhaps Branch has a higher ceiling with further development. I had Savage and Rapp graded very close to each other back in 2019 and I'd place Branch on a similar tier. Sure, maybe that means Branch could go higher than Savage and be a top 20 selection, but I also think it creates a reasonable possibility that he could be a 2nd round draft pick.

Antoine Winfield Jr. essentially switched positions in 2022. After playing primarily as a deep safety in his first 2 years, he played more in the slot than he had ever done before. Pure pass coverage has never been his strongest suit. As a rookie, AWJ was tied for allowing the most explosive passing plays among free safeties. Moving him to the slot in 2022 resulted in a huge decline in his rate of missed tackles, as well as upward bumps in his number of TFLs, sacks and QB hits. Still, notice that he has the highest TD rate in pass coverage of any of the safeties listed above and also trails in yards per target.

Jevon Holland opted out of the 2020 season. In college he was primarily a slot defender, a hybrid CB and LB. Consequently, there were questions about whether he would be a good deep safety in the NFL. Lance Zierlein's profile said he would struggle in man coverage from the slot, lacking recovery burst and long speed, with labored transition from pedal. LZ liked his versatility as either a big nickel CB or a S and projected him as a 2nd to 3rd round pick.

Holland had a spectacular rookie season for the Fins with an 84.7 PF grade. He had the 3rd best pass coverage grade among safeties at 87.7. Miami used him as a deep safety in cover 1 looks, but also sometimes deployed him in the slot or in the box near the LOS.

Considered to be one of the brightest young defensive stars in the NFL, big things were expected from Holland in year 2, but for the most part 2022 was an underwhelming disappointment. He had a 65.5 PFF grade. He was used less frequently as a blitzer and had issues in pass coverage. Miami as a defense gave up the 6th most passing yards in the NFL.

I project Branch to be a very similar player to Holland in the NFL. Like Holland, there might be some inconsistencies early in his career, with exciting highs and frustrating lows. In the end, just like Budda Baker is a good player for the Cards, I expect that Branch will be a good NFL defensive back. I'm not sure which position will be his eventual home. He might play as a free safety, he might be used more as a slot CB. I don't know if he'll be a great player, which is why I didn't give him a 1st round grade.

Even though I beat up Branch a bit listing his weaknesses, he still gets a high draft grade from me. I have him ranked higher than all the other "1st round type" prospects I've covered so far in this year's draft class, including Clark Phillips III, the small Utah CB who likely will end up playing in the slot in the NFL. He's the first prospect that I'd say would definitely be on the BPA short list if he were still on the board at slot 36 for the Rams.

The big takeaway from this fanpost isn't that Branch has a bunch of flaws, therefore the Rams shouldn't draft him. It is that Branch has some flaws that could push him down far enough for the Rams to draft him. Does Brian Branch deserve to be at the very top of the Rams "wish list" for slot 36? That's a question for another day. All I know for the time being is we should at least be talking about him on TST, hence why I did this report.