Love it or hate it, the Detroit Lions came out of the 2023 NFL Draft with a class of players who will be impact performers early on. Many viewed the selections of Jahmyr Gibbs and Jack Campbell at picks 12 and 18 overall as reaches, but there is no doubt both guys will play major roles early in their careers. Some scratched their heads when the team opted to take Sam LaPorta over Michael Mayer with the 34th pick as well.
It was these early picks that made Lions fans and NFL analysts view Detroit’s draft class as underwhelming. However, there is no doubt Lions’ GM Brad Holmes got his guys in the draft. Landing a versatile defender like Brian Branch with the 45th pick went a long way toward alleviating some fans’ worries.
These first four picks by Detroit will have a chance to start right away. Gibbs will share a backfield with free-agent signee David Montgomery. Head coach Dan Campbell envisions them in a similar way to what the New Orleans Saints had in Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara during his time as an assistant coach with the team. Campbell will start alongside Malcolm Rodriguez and Alex Anzalone in base defense, and he will compete with Anzalone for reps in nickel packages. LaPorta has been an early standout during rookie mini-camp, and he will likely steal the starting tight end job away from Brock Wright.
Among the rookies that headline Detroit’s class, Branch could have the biggest impact of any on the success of the 2023 season. The Alabama product was viewed by many as a first-round talent and the consensus best safety in the class. When he slipped to the second round, the Detroit Lions traded up to go get him. That move could bear fruit early as Branch could establish himself as the steal of the draft.
The Detroit Lions overhauled their secondary this offseason
The 2022 Lions defense was one of the worst in the NFL. It ranked last in the league in yards allowed and 28th in points allowed. While the run defense struggled, the main area of weakness was Detroit’s secondary. The Lions ranked 30th in both passing yards and touchdowns allowed this past season. Holmes made a point of improving his team’s pass defense as he completely overhauled the Lions’ secondary this offseason.
Gone are Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, Mike Hughes and DeShon Elliott. Replacing them are Cam Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Sutton went under the radar as a solid No. 1 corner for the Pittsburgh Steelers before signing a three-year deal with Detroit. Moseley signed a one-year deal as he returns from injury. Gardner-Johnson is coming off a Super Bowl appearance with the Philadelphia Eagles.
All three of Detroit’s major secondary free agent signings offer ample versatility. Sutton and Moseley can play as perimeter corners or in the slot. Garnder-Johnson can play as a safety or as a slot corner as well. The trio joins cornerback Jerry Jacobs and safeties Tracy Walker III and Kerby Joseph to form a significantly improved pass defense.
Brian Branch can take the Detroit Lions’ defense to the next level
The Lions have a lot of options for their slot cornerback. Sutton and Moseley can both easily fill that role in nickel packages while Jacobs slides in as an outside corner. Gardner-Johnson can reliably play in the slot in three safety looks. However, Detroit’s best option in the slot in 2023 could be Branch.
During his time at Alabama, Branch played in the playmaker role. He played as a hybrid safety, box defender and perimeter defender. However, he was most heavily utilized in the slot.
He offers good size for the position at 6-foot-0. His size is not ideal at 193 pounds, but it is more than adequate. It is likely he will add muscle to his frame during his professional career.
Branch has natural instincts for the slot, one of the more difficult positions to adjust to at the NFL level. He is a smart player who positions himself well to make a play, diagnose route combinations and read the quarterback. His ability to process offenses makes him a dangerous player to throw against.
His contributions to run defense will not go unnoticed either. Branch was one of the best tacklers in open space throughout his time with Alabama. During his entire collegiate career, the versatile defender only missed four tackles.
Branch may ultimately grow into a full-time safety at some point in his career, but early on, he will make his money out of the slot. The Detroit Lions landed a player with possibly the highest football IQ of anyone in the 2023 class. Branch will have to earn his reps early, but once he does, it will be difficult to take him off the field.
For more from the author, Thomas Chavez, check him out on Twitter here: @tlchavez43
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