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Going Out on a Limb for Brian Branch

NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Kansas State at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Background: Dec 31, 2022; New Orleans, LA, USA; Alabama defensive back Brian Branch (14) makes a tackle on Kansas State running back DJ Giddens (31) during the 2022 Sugar Bowl at Caesars Superdome. Alabama defeated Kansas State 45-20. Mandatory Credit: Gary Cosby Jr.

For those of you have walked this journey with me all these years, you know that come April, I like to single out a favorite player in the NFL Draft whom I wish the Cardinals would select (if available).

Here were my last several favorites, dating back to 2011:

  • 2011 —- JJ Watt, DE, Wisconsin
  • 2012 —- Luke Keuchly, LB, Boston College
  • 2013 —- Tavon Austin, WR, West Virginia
  • 2014 —- Ryan Shazier, LB, Ohio St.
  • 2015 —- Bud Dupree, LB, Kentucky
  • 2016 —- Chris Jones, DT, Mississippi St.
  • 2017 —-Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
  • 2018 — Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
  • 2019 —- Kyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
  • 2020 —- Jedrick Wills, T, Alabama
  • 2021 —- Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
  • 2022 —- Trent McDuffie, CB, Washington

Some of these players were off the board by the time the Cardinals picked —- nor did the Cardinals trade up to get them, as I and a number of you were hoping with Josh Allen.

The one match?

Kyler Murray!

Los Angeles Chargers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The one match who arrived years later?

JJ Watt!

Rams vs Cardinals

This Year’s Favorite?

This Video by Billy Stevens details all of the reasons why I believe Brian Brach would be an ideal pick for the Arizona Cardinals.

  • Branch is a box player who excels in every aspect.
  • He is the best tackler in the 2023 draft. He hammered down 172 tackles in 176 chances at Alabama. That is an historically elite level of consistency.
  • Check out this 2022 stat: in 2022 Branch had 17.5 tackles for loss and 4 sacks. Will Anderson had 17.0 TFLs and 10 sacks. Tyree Wilson had 14.0 TFLs and 7 sacks. Branch blitzed the QB only 44 times. Myles Murphy had 11 TFLs and 6.5 sacks.
  • He blows up lead blockers and screens as well as any defender in the USA. This has been a huge weakness for the Cardinals.
  • Did you you see Branch’s game saving pass breakup versus Mississippi (5:30 mark of video)? Look at how he picks up the slot receiver, how he leverages him in the open field and how he turns his head to locate the ball at the precise time in order to break up the pass. This is pure textbook slot coverage.
  • Did you see how when needed to keep contain on a running play, Branch was textbook in taking on the blocker, maintaining leverage and either making a tackle for loss or forcing the run inside?
  • Branch is a perfect fit in JG’s and Nick Rallis’ defense. They love to mix up man and zone (plus combo man/zone) coverages. Brian Branch excels at both, aspects of his play that Billy Stevens highlights on the video.

Are Christian Gonzalez and Devon Witherspoon Better Prospects?

Gonzalez and Witherspoon turned in stellar performances in 2022, which skyrocketed them up draft boards from being relative unknowns in 2021. However, pro prospects’ last year of college football is essentially a “contract year.” NFL teams know they have to wary of one year wonders, because there is no proof on tape that they can replicate a level of stellar play. It begs the question, if they were so good this year, why weren’t they anything close to being as good their other years?

Don’t get me wrong —- I think Gonzalez and Witherspoon are excellent prospects. But, are they legitimate top 10-12 picks? When one compares their entire body of work, one cannot possibly arrive at that conclusion. Most of the pundits whom I pay close attention project Gonzalez and Witherspoon more as CB2s than CB1s. Neither of them have proven they can consistently win in slot coverage, but there is a chance they could grow into that role.

In comparison, Brian Branch was a reliably consistent player for three years at Alabama. And don’t forget, Branch excelled in slot coverage duties, which, if you ask any CB, is the most difficult cover assignment in football. Plus, Branch played in the SEC, the best and most talent-rich conference in America. Winners of the last 4 National Championships.

Moreover, Branch has shined under the brightest of lights —- helping Alabama win the national Championship in 2020 and playing at an all-star level in SEC Championship and FBS Championship Tournament games.

Neither Christian Gonzalez nor Devon Witherspoon have played in a conference championship or national championship tournament game. No one knows at this point how they would fare under the brightest of lights.

One could hope they would do well, but how would anyone know?

With Brian Branch, it’s a completely different story.

This Season’s Bowl Games:

  • Branch: 12 tackles (11 solo), 1 sack, 4 tackles for loss in Alabama’s 45-20 Sugar Bowl win over Kansas St.
  • Gonzalez: elected not to play in Oregon’s 28-27 win over North Carolina in the Holiday Bowl.
  • Witherspoon: elected not to play in Illinois’ 19-10 loss to Mississippi St. in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

Team First Guy?

Think about this —- Alabama for the first time in years was not in the CFP tournament. For a top caliber draft prospect like Brian Branch he could have elected to sit out the bowl game. Instead, he played and was worthy of being the game’’s defensive MVP, helping Alabama go out on a very high note.

Brian Branch’s Other Bowl Games:

  • 8 tackles (leading team) and 12 a sack in Alabama’s 27-6 win over Cincinnati in the 2021 Cotton Bowl.
  • 3 tackles (2 solo) in Alabama’s 33-18 loss to Georgia in the CFP Championship.
  • 3 tackles and 1 pass breakup in Alabama’s 31-14 win over Notre Dame in the 2021 Rose Bowl.
  • 4 tackles and 3 pass breakups in Alabama’s 52-24 win over Ohio St. in the CFP National Championship game on January 11, 2021.

How can anyone rating the top pro prospects rank Christian Gonzalez and Devon Witherspoon higher than Brian Branch? Off one year of tape? And look at how Branch matches up grade and numbers-wise to them in their one impressive season:

Coverage Grade:

  • Branch: 86.4
  • Gonzalez: 83.9
  • Witherspoon: 92.5

Run Defense Grade:

  • Branch: 90.7
  • Gonzalez: 75.8
  • Witherspoon: 78.6

Coverage Stops:

  • Branch: 19 (Tied for 1st in FBS)
  • Gonzalez: 8
  • Witherspoon: 11

Run Stops:

  • Branch: 24 (tied for 10th in FBS)

Snaps in the Slot:

  • Branch: 569
  • Gonzalez: 138
  • Witherspoon: 10

Why Brian Branch would be Lou Anarumo’s Slam Dunk Pick:

The day that Bengals’ defense started playing at a championship caliber level, was the day that Lou Anarumo acquired slot CB Mike Hilton as a free agent.

In Anarumo’s first two seasons without a nifty slot CB like hilton, opponents’ QBRs were:

  • 2019 — 95.4 —-22nd in NFL
  • 2020 —- 96.1 —- 22nd

In comes slot CB Mike Hilton and look at the improvements:

  • 2021 —- 93.1 —-18th
  • 2022 —- 80.1 —- 1st

In these two seasons, the Bengals went 3-1 vs. Patrick Mahomes and 1-0 vs. Tom Brady and 1-0 vs. Josh Allen.

Cracking the code in today’s NFL is winning on defense in coverage, particularly from the slot versus WRs and TEs and having box defenders who can make tackles for losses and bust up screens.

Arizona Cardinals defensive QBR in 2022 was 98.2, 31st in the NFL.

If the Cardinals trade down and somehow do not draft Will Anderson Jr., then Brian Branch could give the Arizona Cardinals something they have never truly had: a box defender who not only is an elite tackler, run defender and screen buster, he’s an absolute dawg in pass coverage, both in man-to-man and zone. Plus, according to Nick Saban, Branch is a stud at the back end of coverage at free safety, if and when his coaches want to play him there.

Brian Branch could help the Cardinals, for the first time ever, crack the code.