By sheer football playing ability, Brian Branch should probably have been a first-round pick last April. But he is on the small side, and he didn't tear it up in on-field work at the NFL Combine. So he fell to the second round. The Detroit Lions swooped in and traded up to get him at pick No. 48.
Branch wasted no time in earning a big role, and he also wasted no time making an impact with a pick-six of Patrick Mahomes in Week 1. In 15 games he had 74 total tackles (fifth on the team), with three interceptions, a team-high 13 pass breakups and seven tackles for loss. In a memorable moment against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 3, he set himself up as a tone setter for the Lions' defense.
Branch was also impactful in the playoffs, capped by the posting the highest Pro Football Focus grade among cornerbacks in the conference championship games.
That Branch was basically ignored in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting is a borderline criminal oversight by the voters. But onward and upward, as he now moves toward his second season.
Brian Branch notes a couple ways he can improve his game
Branch talked to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press about his rookie season and what he can do to improve.
“I feel like I could have done more, I had my ups and downs and I feel like I left a lot of plays out there on the table that I was supposed to make, I’m still thinking about that and I’m not kind of proud of that, and I feel like my next year is going to have to be my biggest year.”
Branch then highlighted a couple areas he wants to improve in.
"I want to say still covering, not really using my hands in a way,” Branch said. “Like down the field, I have a tendency of using them and you can’t touch these receivers. That, and just my blitzes. I feel like I choked on a lot of blitzes.”
Including the playoffs, Branch was called for five penalties of the downfield coverage ilk (illegal contact, defensive holding, pass interference). That doesn't feel like a ton, over 18 games played. But it does point to what he said about watching his hand usage beyond the five yards a defensive back is allowed to make contact with a receiver.
On the blitzing front, Branch had one sack, three quarterback hits with five hurries and two knockdowns this past season. Of course blitzes sometimes come against run plays, but Branch feels like he can be more impactful in that area.
Players often make their biggest leap from Year 1 to Year 2. Branch's rookie season was just fine, but the benefit of a year's experience will help him be even better next season.