The 2023 NFL Draft features an exciting and diverse cornerback class, which is good news for any team in need of secondary help. There are corners of every size and shape to fit in any coverage scheme in the NFL.
But does that include Alabama’s Brian Branch?
Some evaluators have him as a part of the cornerback class, while others have him listed as a safety. Alabama used him all over their secondary, further muddying the waters of his evaluation.
The New York Giants call a “positionless” defense under Wink Martindale, and made great use of cornerback turned safety Julian Love in 2022. Love has since departed in free agency, but might that put Branch on the Giants’ radar?
Prospect: Brian Branch (14)
Games Watched: vs. Texas (2022), vs. Arkansas (2022), vs. Tennessee (2022), vs. LSU (2022)
Games Played: 35
Tackles for a loss: 19.5
Passes defensed: 23
Games Played: 13
Tackles for a loss: 14.0
Passes defensed: 7
Best: Versatility, football IQ, hip fluidity and foot quickness, zone coverage, run defense, blitzing, competitive toughness
Worst: Speed, man coverage
Projection: A starting safety or slot defender for a multiple defense.
(Branch is Alabama DB number 14)
Alabama defensive back Brian Branch is a versatile and athletic defender who played all over the Crimson Tide’s secondary.
Branch played a wide variety of roles for Nick Saban’s defense, lining up as a free and box safety, a slot corner, and even as a blitzing linebacker. He played well from all alignments and his ability to execute such a wide variety of roles within Alabama’s sophisticated defense speaks highly of his football IQ. Branch is a good communicator before the snap and a quick processor after the snap. He generally diagnoses the play quickly and makes accurate reads.
He is a fluid athlete for the safety position, which also allowed him to frequently play slot corner. Branch has quick feet and smooth, oily hips that help him maintain a compact backpedal. He maintains good balance in his backpedal and is able to open his hips in transition from backpedal to running with ball carriers in space. Likewise, he also has enough foot quickness to drive downhill on the ball without needing to gather himself first. Branch has a very quick downhill trigger from zone coverage and a good closing burst in space. That allows him to be disruptive at the catch point as well as a reliable defender in space.
He was also frequently used in Alabama’s blitzing schemes. Branch not only times his rushes very well, but he does a good job of disguising his rushes when blitzing from a slot or safety alignment. He has enough speed into the backfield to beat blockers through his athleticism. That said, Branch also boasts impressive play strength and is able to stack and shed blocks when playing downhill – even offensive line blocks when they aren’t ready for him.
While Branch is a good and fluid athlete, he shouldn’t be matched up against wide receivers in man coverage. He struggled multiple times in man coverage against receivers in the slot in the tape viewed. He doesn’t have enough speed to carry athletic receivers on vertical routes, nor is he as quick and fluid as a true corner and can struggle to stay with quick or savvy route runners.
Likewise, while Branch is a smart and sound defender, he can bite on misdirection or take overly aggressive angles to the football when pressing to make a play.
Overall Grade: 8.2
Alabama defensive back Brian Branch projects as a versatile safety or slot defender with starting upside at the NFL level.
Branch likely has the highest upside in an aggressive “multiple” defense that will allow him to move around the secondary, as well as contribute to the pass rush as a blitzer. Branch has a very diverse skill set, and he should be put in position to make full use of it. He’s able to play a traditional deep safety role in a Cover 2 or Cover 3 defense, as well as play in the box as a strong safety. That said, his versatility is an asset that defensive coordinators should scheme around.
His upside as a blitzer is exciting as well. Branch has good speed into the backfield and the ability to disguise his rushes will be a boon for exotic blitz schemes. His ability to deal with blockers through speed or play strength is exciting as well.
Branch isn’t without limitations, and his future team should probably be careful about matching him up in man coverage. He struggled in man coverage against slot receivers often enough to give concern that the problem will continue in the NFL. Branch is quick and fluid for a safety, but he is still definitely a safety – just one who can play zone coverage against slot receivers.
That still has plenty of value for teams, particularly as offenses are finding more ways to use slot receivers as weapons and not just third-down safety blankets.