The 2023 NFL Draft safety class is polarizing, both in terms of quality of talent and role projections. Alabama S Brian Branch is entrusted with being this group’s saving grace, but does he have the profile to command safe Round 1 capital, and can he be a game-changer at the next level? Let’s discuss Branch’s style, his projection, and what he can become in the NFL.
Brian Branch NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Safety
- School: Alabama
- Current Year: Junior
- Height/Weight: 6’0″, 190 pounds
- Arm: 30 3/4″
- Hand: 9 1/2″
Early production can be misleading at times, but it can also guide you to naturally talented prospects who are in line for premier roles on Sundays. When those young players produce immediately, especially at a school like Alabama, it’s impossible not to take notice.
Branch achieved that kind of immediate production with the Crimson Tide in 2020. Arriving as a four-star recruit who had set a new record for career interceptions at Sandy Creek High School, it didn’t take long for Branch to work himself into Alabama’s defensive rotation.
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In 2020, Branch put up 27 tackles, one interception, and seven pass deflections. In 2021, he returned in a hybrid slot role and amassed 55 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack, and nine more pass breakups.
All Branch has known since arriving at Alabama is production, but he somehow raised the bar in his final season in 2022. Branch dominated as a true junior, racking up 90 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, three sacks, two interceptions, and seven pass deflections. He not only earned recognition as one of college football’s premier defenders but, at last, earned respect as a potential first-round talent in the 2023 NFL Draft.
Brian Branch Scouting Report
Following in the footsteps of versatile Alabama defenders like Minkah Fitzpatrick and Xavier McKinney, can Branch command early-round billing in the 2023 NFL Draft?
At 6’0″, 190 pounds, Branch has decent height and weight and passable length. But his size isn’t what makes his physical profile so enticing. He’s not even an elite athlete at the position either, but he has dynamic mobility on tape, nonetheless.
Branch is a deceptively explosive athlete who surges out of his stance. His 10’5″ broad jump — in the 83rd percentile — exemplifies this. He’s a fairly quick accelerator coming downhill, with the torrid foot speed to fuel that acceleration. He flashes high-end accelerative capacity when attacking in support, and he has the initial burst to explode past blockers in close quarters and invade the backfield.
Going beyond his explosiveness, Branch has enough long speed to carry receivers up seams and on deep crossers. He’s also a very fluid athlete with exceptional corrective freedom in his hips. Branch can instantly redirect outside to out routes after flipping inside to the seam.
The third-year defensive back can easily flip his hips upfield and run with receivers. He’s able to snap around on 180-degree transitions and redirect his momentum with relative ease.
More than anything, Branch has high-level short-area agility. He’s an extremely twitchy and urgent short-area mover who can chop his feet and flip his hips to redirect with rare suddenness. With his elite twitch and foot speed, Branch fits the profile of a hyper-agile athlete who can stack direction changes in rapid succession. His brand of mobility grants him great positional versatility. Branch has the skills to play in the slot, but he can also rotate back to safety.
Versatile defensive backs who combine athleticism and instincts are coveted, and Branch falls under this categorization. The Alabama safety has shown that he can process route concepts in space and recognize underneath routes sneaking to the flats. Additionally, he flashes a quick trigger when identifying underneath routes and snapping forward, and he very quickly triggers on slants and in-breaking routes.
Branch has good processing speed, but his overarching physicality allows him to make the most of it. He is an ultra-physical competitor who plays larger than his frame and can dish jarring hits downhill. He’ll blast into receivers attempting to haul in passes over the middle of the field, but his physicality has more practical uses as well. Branch has shown that he can use targeted swipes to gather receivers and play catch technique at stems.
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There’s room for Branch to improve his man technique, but his overall positioning is far from a weakness. He is able to carry and pass off receivers and can position himself effectively in zone coverage. To that end, Branch often spaces himself well against two-on-ones upfield, and he has the recovery athleticism to flip around and close on passes when QBs trigger.
In off-man coverage, Branch has shown that he can maintain discipline by squaring up receivers at stems, matching with fast feet, and keying in on the hips to stick to routes. With his mix of short-area freedom and quick response to stimulus, he’s a sticky cover man when retracting from stems.
Although he lacks elite size, Branch is an asset in run support. With his corrective twitch and foot speed, he can quickly adjust tackling angles when running backs attempt to displace him with cuts. He uses his athleticism well to combat blocks and can pry past blockers with short-area adjustments and rips.
In a similar vein, Branch actively squares up runners and surges into contact with fast feet. He’s an insanely consistent form tackler for his size, routinely lowering his shoulder and wrapping with his frame.
Branch has shown that he can lunge to close gaps and wrap up as a tackler. He instinctively squares up with amped-up movement skills when approaching contact situations, and he’s more than willing to crash into gaps outside and wall off lanes for runners.
Overall, Branch is an urgent run support defender who brings constant energy. He runs into alleys without hesitation and engages runners at full force, but he’s also focused and collected while sifting through congestion to track down opponents. Branch takes great long-track pursuit angles coming downhill and has the adaptability to adjust angles as he approaches.
Branch is a natural playmaker, and it shows both on the ground and in the air. When given opportunities, he showcases great natural timing and coordination at the catch point, and he has the skills to convert when in position. He has shown that he can play the ball through the catch process and dislodge passes with force.
Branch’s Areas for Improvement
Branch’s functional athleticism pops on tape, especially in smaller ranges. But he isn’t quite an elite athlete, and he can also better channel the athleticism he does possess.
At times, Branch can better generate and carry acceleration out of transitions. Branch can be flat-footed when responding to breaks, which in turn stalls his momentum. To that end, he doesn’t always show quantifiably elite burst off of transitions, and he visibly lacks elite long speed. While he’s far from a liability with his speed, he can lose a step in deep coverage against faster wideouts. His 4.58 40-yard dash time indicates this well.
Branch’s man coverage technique is another visible area for improvement, especially when projecting a potential slot role at the next level. He sometimes gets a bit too grabby when carrying receivers into space. He can be baited into tugging on transitions when he’s too hands-dominant. Similarly, Branch sometimes attempts to jam without proper positioning, lurching and falling a step behind.
Expanding on Branch’s technical flaws, the Crimson Tide defensive back has room to play lower in his stance and employ more efficient technique on his backpedal. He can be more efficient when managing space in deep coverage, as he sometimes has to gather himself before sinking and turning to pursue. Closer to the line, Branch can be caught too wide and flat-footed at stems which can impact his ability to transition and carry acceleration.
With Branch being a young defender, there are occasional mental lapses as well. At times, he can better diagnose QB intent while following the opposing passer’s eyes. He sometimes passes off receivers that the QB is already keying in on. In those situations, Branch can more consistently use discretion in committing to those routes. Meanwhile, in zone coverage, Branch sometimes turns his back to the QB and risks being manipulated by receivers.
Branch also doesn’t have elite ankle flexibility and doesn’t always employ curvilinear acceleration to gain speed along pursuit paths while turning upfield. While he’s very fluid, he does occasionally experience a slight delay when attempting to swivel around on 180-degree transitions. Lastly, his frame is a bit lean. He holds up well enough in contact situations but could stand to add more mass at the NFL level.
Current Draft Projection for Alabama S Brian Branch
A non-elite athletic performance at the NFL Combine has some souring on Branch, but the tape is the most resounding supporting evidence for him. Even after the Combine, he still grades out as a top 15 prospect on my board and is well worth consideration in the middle and later portions of Round 1 in the 2023 NFL Draft.
As the arguable top safety prospect in the class, Branch doesn’t quite have the preferred ceiling. He’s far from a liability with his size and athleticism, but he’s close to average with his frame and doesn’t have overwhelming speed and range on the back end. Despite those limitations, Branch has an incredibly exciting skill set as a hybrid slot defender with the versatility to play in space.
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Branch is explosive, fluid, extremely twitchy, and fleet-footed in short ranges. He’s also exceedingly physical and proactive in both coverage and run support, possesses sure tackling ability, and has the skills and the play style to make a major impact in both phases. While he can be more consistent with his discipline in off-man, he does flash quality technique and brings excellent reaction quickness and closing burst in zone.
Overall, Branch is a multifaceted defensive back with slot and two-high capabilities, who flies downhill in support, can easily match receivers in man, and make plays at the catch point. His maximum ceiling isn’t necessarily elite, but in a league where short-area athleticism, instincts, and playmaking proactivity reign supreme, Branch has the tools to be an impact starter for a defense.
Tony Pauline’s Scouting Report on Brian Branch
Strengths: Athletic, playmaking safety with cornerback ball skills. Instinctive, displays a great head for the ball, and quickly locates the action. Fires upfield with a closing burst, drives through tackles, and wraps up opponents to bring them down in the open field.
Covers a lot of area on the field, goes sideline to sideline, and displays outstanding speed in every direction. Reads the quarterback’s eyes, tracks the pass in the air, and has an exceptional break to the throw. Stays on the receiver’s hip out of routes and quickly closes to the action with a burst.
Breaks down well and effectively uses his hands to protect himself. Immediately alters his angle of attack and loses no momentum changing direction. Effectively uses his hands to disengage from blocks. Communicates with teammates in the secondary and makes sure they are in proper position. Plays much faster than his Combine 40-yard dash time.
Weaknesses: Overpursues plays on occasion. Not a real bulky or stout safety.
Overall: Branch caught my eye as a sophomore in 2021 with his athleticism and playmaking skill. He showed plenty of improvement on the field last season and enters the draft as the top free safety. He can also line up in man coverage over the slot receiver without being a liability.