The Ravens are expected to have about 170 players on their big board when the NFL draft kicks off Thursday. Only a small share are first-round prospects. An even smaller share will be available at No. 22 overall. What will the Ravens do when they’re finally on the clock?
Over the next week, The Baltimore Banner will make the case for how general manager Eric DeCosta should handle the Ravens’ first-round pick, from building up their offense to bolstering their defense to moving around the draft board.
Today, we make the case for Alabama safety Brian Branch.
(We previously touted TCU wide receiver Quentin Johnston.)
Kyle Hamilton might’ve blazed a path for Branch in Baltimore. It just wasn’t the most direct path.
After the Ravens took the Notre Dame safety No. 14 overall in last year’s draft, they tried to find a trade partner for starting safety Chuck Clark. But they couldn’t, and Clark only strengthened his grip on a starting job in training camp. Hamilton played early in the season, struggling at times as he lined up all over the field for coordinator Mike Macdonald. He finally found a home in late October, when he started to settle into his role as the Ravens’ nickelback. From Week 7 through the end of the regular season, playing primarily in the slot and in the box, Hamilton graded out as Pro Football Focus’ No. 6 overall safety among qualifying players.
Now, with Clark traded to the New York Jets, the Ravens may need another nickelback. Coach John Harbaugh said at the NFL scouting combine in March that he expects Hamilton to move back and pair with Marcus Williams as the team’s starting safeties, though he’ll still line up closer to the line of scrimmage in certain situations.
“I just think it gives us great flexibility,” Harbaugh said. “It leaves room for a third or even fourth safety in the mix.”
In an age where three-wide-receiver formations dominate, the modern NFL base defense now features five defensive backs. The Ravens lined up in nickel personnel on 60% of their snaps last season, according to TruMedia, and dime personnel (six defensive backs) on 16.6% of their snaps. After trading for inside linebacker Roquan Smith before Week 9, the Ravens leaned even more on their nickel looks, deploying five defensive backs 70.8% of the time.
Entering the draft, the Ravens have two potential standout nickelbacks in Hamilton and Marlon Humphrey, but it’s unclear how much either will play there in 2023. Humphrey, primarily an inside cornerback in 2019 and 2020, has lined up more on the outside each of the past two years. A return to the slot would leave the Ravens with another hole to fill out wide.
The team has in-house options available at both spots, though they’re largely unproven. Brandon Stephens has bounced between roles in the secondary, while 2022 fourth-round picks Damarion “Pepe” Williams and Jalyn Armour-Davis project as an inside and outside corner, respectively. The Ravens could also re-sign Marcus Peters, who started 13 games opposite Humphrey last season, or add a veteran like Rock Ya-Sin.
The draft range
Branch is the only safety expected to be taken in the first round. Aside from last year, when Hamilton was one of three safeties taken on Day 1, the position hasn’t been in high demand in recent drafts. None were taken in the first round in 2020 or 2021.
According to ESPN’s projections, there’s more than a 95% chance that Branch will be available at No. 22 overall. The Ravens could also trade back and hope to find Branch still on the board. While he’s been frequently linked to the Jacksonville Jaguars at No. 24 overall, ESPN estimates that there’s about a 50% chance Branch will be undrafted entering the second round.
The schematic fit
Branch’s game is polished, physical, instinctive. He did everything well last season. He just happens to play a position that most teams don’t pay a premium for.
Over each of Branch’s three years at Alabama, he played at least 65.9% of his defensive snaps in the slot. Last season, he lined up there on 74.1% of his snaps and in the box on another 17.7%.
That put Branch in the middle of everything for the Crimson Tide’s defense, which finished No. 5 nationally in ESPN’s efficiency rankings. He filled gaps at the line of scrimmage as a run defender. He blitzed from the slot and from 10 yards off the ball. He covered tight ends in man-to-man looks and wide receivers split out wide as a zone defender. At 6 feet, 190 pounds, Branch didn’t look much like the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Hamilton. But he certainly played like him.
Branch’s game speed belies his track speed (a disappointing 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine), especially in coverage. He had nine forced incompletions last season, according to PFF, tied for the eighth most among safeties nationally. According to Sports Info Solutions, Branch was targeted eight times on passes at least 20 yards downfield and allowed just one completion. (Six Ravens, meanwhile, allowed at least two deep catches in coverage in 2022, and the team gave up 25 overall.)
ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety, said Branch has the best coverage instincts of any prospect in the draft. That processing ability was obvious in Alabama’s blowout Sugar Bowl win over Kansas State last season. Early in the second half, Branch was “bracketing,” or double-teaming, a slot receiver with help from a deep safety. As soon as Branch recognized that the route was a slant, he peeled off the receiver, whom the safety had picked up, and looked for the outside receiver on his side of the field.
From his film study, Branch recalled at the combine, he knew that the Wildcats tended to package one slant in certain formations with another. His instincts were correct; Kansas State was running a double-slant concept. Branch read quarterback Will Howard’s eyes, broke away from his slot receiver and picked off the pass, his second interception of the season.
Branch often lined up in off-coverage at Alabama, giving receivers a healthy cushion at the line of scrimmage, but his play recognition and acceleration to the catch point rarely allowed for easy completions. According to SIS, Branch gave up just 16 catches on 36 targets for 161 yards (4.5 yards per target) when lined up in the slot last season. On a highlight-reel play against Mississippi State, he bolted over from the hash marks to undercut a throw to the sideline and make a leaping deflection:
For as disruptive as Branch was in pass defense, he was maybe even more of a nuisance around the line of scrimmage. The Crimson Tide sent him after the quarterback 44 times last season, just under 10% of his pass play downs, according to PFF. He finished with three sacks, two quarterback hits, two hurries and three batted passes, relying more on his savvy than his speed and size to knife into the backfield. Over and over again, Branch timed his blitzes to perfection, like on this sack against Mississippi State:
As a tackler, meanwhile, Branch emerged as something close to the gold standard for safety prospects. According to PFF, he missed only four of his 173 career tackle attempts (2.3%) at Alabama and graded out as the best-tackling defensive back in the site’s history.
It wasn’t just how often Branch tackled ball carriers that stood out but also how he tackled them — ferociously, often behind the line of scrimmage, with little help from teammates. Against Texas, Branch shed a block from a pulling guard and dropped running back Roschon Johnson, a likely Day 3 pick in next week’s draft, for one of his 14 tackles for loss in 2022:
Against LSU, three quarters after bowling over a running back in pass protection, Branch obliterated a wide receiver after a catch — and nearly came away with the ball, too:
And against Kansas State, he tackled running back Deuce Vaughn, one of the nation’s most elusive players, five times along the way to a 12-tackle performance:
With Branch’s spoonfuls of experience as a deep-lying safety — Alabama occasionally lined him up in center field on third-and-long — a significant role awaits wherever he’s drafted. In Baltimore, though, Hamilton’s presence could supercharge Branch, making him even more dangerous. At the combine, Harbaugh hinted at his preference for “moving parts,” players who can credibly hint at one play before the snap only to end up doing the opposite. Adding Branch to the mix, another jack-of-all-trades safety too talented to ignore, would only add to the confusion of opposing offenses.
“We’re not going to be a defense that’s static,” Harbaugh said. “Our guys are going to be playing different positions. We’re going to disguise. We’re going to blitz.”
The red flag
Against a daunting Southeastern Conference schedule, Branch’s physical deficiencies didn’t often show up on tape. Still, he’ll have to prove that his smaller build and average explosiveness won’t limit his staying power in the NFL.
Branch allowed a touchdown last season to speedy Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, who beat him easily in the red zone on an in-breaking route. Other times, Branch got grabby with receivers trying to run by him in the middle of the field. Branch was called for five defensive-pass-interference penalties last season, including one close to the goal line in the final seconds of a near loss to Texas A&M.
Branch rarely had trouble defeating blocks last season, but his size will make him a target in space. A Utah State wide receiver pancaked him on a wide receiver screen in the Crimson Tide’s season opener. Branch also struggled to set the edge against offenses in heavier personnel groupings.
Of course, those challenges are familiar to most young defensive backs in the NFL. Branch will hear questions about his size and speed as soon as he’s drafted. But few young safeties seem to have as many answers as he does.
“I feel like if a team utilizes me to blitz a lot, I can blitz,” Branch said at the combine. “If a team wants me to cover their slot receiver, man coverage, I can do that. If a team utilizes me to drop into zone, I can do that as well, and also be back at safety and call the defense, be the quarterback of the defense. I feel I can do all of that.”