“Detroit Lions: Branch is Coveted DB Chess Piece”
The NFL goes through stages where certain phrases or formations become mainstream buzzwords.
Years ago we had the Wildcat formation that the Miami Dolphins used for a few weeks. Before that, the term dual-threat quarterback was popular. This guy doesn’t just throw the ball, but he can run too.
Introducing the Chess Piece
These days, the popular buzzword is ‘chess piece’ mainly used for a defensive player who can play multiple positions.
That’s what the Lions have in second round pick Brian Branch from Alabama. He was used more often as a safety in Tuscaloosa. But the Tide also had him play nickel as well.
NFL.com analyst Lance Zierlein said his player comparison for Branch is Minkah Fitzpatrick. That would be great for Lions fans if that comes true.
Not the most athletic guy on the field, Branch finds other ways to be highly productive. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, he had the highest production score of any cornerback at the 2023 combine.
A major factor for that accolade is his elite instincts and intelligence. Certainly, he is one of the smartest players on the field at all times which helps make up for his lack of athleticism.
He is an example that you don’t need to run a 4.4 40-yard dash if you can out-think and out-work your opponent.
That skill set led to a breakout year in 2022 for the junior safety. He had 14 tackles for loss (with three sacks), two interceptions and seven pass breakups. He was named second-team AP All-American.
NFL.com labeled him as a prospect who will become ‘a good starter in two years.’ That’s the kind of player you are happy getting out of the second round in the draft. Branch doesn’t need to come in and take someone’s job day one.
But if he can be a good rotational contributor and provide some spot starts when guys get hurt. Then in year two possibly take over as a starter depending on roster turnover, you won’t complain at all.
Lions Roster May Look Different Soon
Meanwhile, speaking of roster turnover. It’ll be interesting to see what the Lions depth chart looks like heading into 2024.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson is only signed for next season. As is new cornerback Emmanuel Moseley.
Veteran safety Tracy Walker has two-years left on his contract. Meaning if he was cut after next year the Lions only have to deal with one year of $7 million dead cap. He only played three games last season due to injury and has missed a couple games each year.
Defensive back is a long-term mystery box for the Lions as it stands. But, that’s what makes drafting Branch so crucial. It adds a great investment piece to the depth chart. One that is expected to pay dividends in a hurry.
The point is, by 2024, the starting safety spots could be held down by Branch and Kerby Joseph. That isn’t really a bad thing at all. But it does mean hopefully Branch gets quality playing time in high pressure situations this season to gain seasoning.
I was a big fan of Branch coming into mock draft season. The Lions defense was bad last year and adding one of those touted ‘chess pieces’ to the back four would help it.
And, not to mention, Branch played for Nick Saban which has instilled a winning and professional culture at Alabama.
I’m surprised he fell that far to mid-second round. Likewise, general manager Brad Holmes was too.
“I didn’t think he was going to be there,” Holmes said after day two of the draft. “But we were jacked that he was.”
For more from the author Jeramy Stover, check him out on Twitter here: @jstover96
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