The Alabama Crimson Tide’s 2020 recruiting class featured various elite athletes who made an immediate impact for the 2021 national champions. Perhaps the most notable among the stellar group of 2020 freshmen were quarterback Bryce Young, defensive end Will Anderson Jr. and defensive back Malachi Moore. Just before the 2021 College Football Playoffs, Moore, who played STAR for the Crimson Tide, was declared out for the season with a back injury. Brian Branch filled the resulting gap in the depth chart. He has since established himself as one of the top defenders in the projected 2023 NFL Draft class.
A native of Fayetteville, Ga., Branch played safety, wide receiver and special teams for Sandy Creek High School. As a junior, the star athlete recorded 58 tackles, five interceptions and six pass breakups on his way to All-County Defensive Player of the Year and Fayetteville News’ “Super 12” honors. As a senior, conference coaches named him the Georgia 5A Ironman of the Year - an award given to the league’s top two-way player. Branch finished his time at Sandy Creek as the school’s career interceptions leader. He played in the All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Tex.
A multi-position standout, the Sandy Creek product was a highly-touted recruit. The 247Sports Composite Rankings listed him as a four-star safety, the 61st overall player in his class, the third best at his position that year, and the eighth-ranked recruit from Georgia in 2020. 247Sports was slightly higher on Branch. It named him a four-star recruit, the 49th overall player in his class, the third best safety that year, and the sixth-ranked recruit from Georgia in 2020. He was a unanimous four-star player across major recruiting platforms. Branch chose to play at Alabama over a list of powerhouse programs that included his home-state Georgia Bulldogs and the then-reigning national champion LSU Tigers.
In his first year with the Crimson Tide, Branch played 12 games and made three starts. He recorded 27 tackles, a half-tackle for loss, one quarterback hurry, seven pass breakups and two interceptions. His nine passes defended placed him third among SEC freshmen. A reliable contributor throughout his debut campaign, Branch established himself as a playmaker in the 2021 College Football Playoffs. After his impactful performance at the end of his freshman season, the Fayetteville native was no longer seen as a developmental role player. To best find a way to get the then-sophomore on the field in 2021, coaches had Branch practice at every position in Alabama’s secondary before the season’s kickoff. Through the first several games of the year, he and Moore rotated between STAR (or nickel) and MONEY (or dime). Late in the season, though, Branch began to take over the team’s nickel corner job. In his second year at Alabama, the Crimson Tide star racked up 55 tackles, one sack, nine pass breakups, one quarterback hurry and one fumble recovery. More than only a high-volume tackler, Branch - who has said he models his game off Tyrann Mathieu and Troy Polamalu - is extremely efficient. According to Pro Football Focus, he did not miss a single tackle in 2021. He only missed one as a true freshman.
With the 2022 college football season only months away, the Alabama defensive backfield depth chart has started to take shape. If spring practices are a credible source, Branch is slated to play the STAR role in 2022 while Moore will fill the MONEY position. In other words, Branch will continue to serve as the team’s nickel corner while Moore will be the team’s dime defensive back. The talented defender has garnered praise from several NFL-caliber teammates. Phidarian Mathis, a 2022 second-round pick by the Washington Commanders, spoke positively about Branch’s game and work ethic. Henry To’o To’o, one of the 2023 NFL Draft’s top projected linebackers, labeled the third-year defensive back as physical and a communicator. Crimson Tide coaches have regularly commended Branch’s versatility.
Though confidence is crucial at any position on the gridiron, defensive backs must be some of the mentally strongest players on the field. The nature of the position is such that these athletes are regularly on an island with their mistakes magnified. A missed tackle or a single false step could result in a touchdown. Branch’s mentality is rock solid. No player is perfect and the Alabama safety does, indeed, err on film. That said, he exhibits a short-term memory and even thrives after making mistakes where many other players would crumble. Before the snap, Branch frequently directs his teammates.
While self-belief is invaluable in football, so too is high-level athleticism. Branch is a fluid mover with notable lower-body flexibility who makes clean transitions thanks to his sharp, sudden feet. He displays quick and easy change of direction ability and impressive lateral and linear burst. The Georgia native has very good long speed. Branch possesses impressive functional strength throughout his frame.
Perhaps the defining trait of the star defensive back’s game is his physicality. Branch seeks out contact at all times. He never shies away from a hit and is, in fact, a willing gang or clean-up tackler. In coverage, Branch lands hands and is strong enough to substantially slow wide receivers and tight ends.
A versatile defender, Branch’s best work against the pass comes in man coverage. He is a patient player who generally avoids biting on salesmanship or overcommitting prematurely, opting instead to trust his athleticism. Branch has the fluidity to stick with most route-runners through the vast majority of their cuts. He can mirror opponents consistently and is particularly effective after landing hands to their frame. What’s more, the standout safety does very well to work into a top shoulder position from which he uses his strength to impact, control and lock down route-runners. He can stay sticky from the bottom shoulder as well. Additionally, Branch has a knack for leveraging routes, thereby minimizing his risk while creating opportunities for contact at the top of the route stem. He limits his blind spots with smart hip turns, stellar physicality and proper angles of recovery. Branch maintains sound eye discipline throughout routes. He can cover tight ends, but he is at his best against wide receivers.
Despite seeing relatively limited reps in zone coverage, Branch has had success in that role thanks to his instincts and fluidity. He has solid spatial awareness and route recognition. Furthermore, he understands route development and combinations. He can split the difference between two pass-catchers in his zone and maintains proper depth or contain when necessary. His burst affords him impressive click-and-close ability. As he develops, Branch can be a viable option in almost any zone concept at any level of the field.
At the catch point, Branch’s high school experience at wide receiver is evident. He has great hand-eye coordination and can play through the receiver’s hands. He can jar the ball loose with physicality.
For all of his exciting work in coverage, Branch is at his best against the run. He typically maintains solid gap discipline without prematurely pressing the line of scrimmage. Consequently, he can scrape and two-gap from the second or even third level of the defense. He seamlessly identifies and tracks the ball carrier through traffic with exciting closing speed. Against blockers, Branch is physical, flexible and strong. As a result, he can beat them with movement, strength and technique. Branch leads with straight, accurate hands to establish distance and work through opponents. His constant hand usage and movement are too much for most offensive players. He even strings moves together with ease to beat multiple opponents at once. He typically overpowers skill position blockers. As a tackler, Branch is remarkably efficient. He has great technique and grip strength while simultaneously boasting reliable stopping power. As a pass rusher, Branch uses salesmanship, movement skills, creativity and flexibility in conjunction.
Finally, the Alabama defender’s blend of physicality, efficient tackling and athleticism make him a high-floor player. An NFL team can draft Branch and feel confident that he will at least be a staple of their special-teams units for the duration of his time with the franchise.
In spite of his well-rounded skill set, Branch’s projection to the NFL is unclear entering the 2022 college football season. He has very little experience as a full-time starter; in fact, he barely saw the field in some 2021 games due to the significant rotation that he and Moore shared. Moreover, teams may be hesitant to select Branch as he ostensibly lacks a traditional position. Depending on the team that drafts him and how they use him, he can be an exciting defensive chess piece, a special teamer, or anything in between.
Additionally, Alabama’s talented safety must refine his game in man coverage. His tendency to engage with wide or inaccurate hands both reduces his functional power and leaves his frame open to contact. Though he keeps his hands on his assignment through the catch point, he should aim for their hip pocket to better feel their routes. On occasion, he is a step slow mirroring without contact - especially against particularly quick wide receivers. His hips are sometimes late to flip as a result of his patient style. Conversely, some notable prospects have forced him to bite in man coverage before he can land hands. Branch, at times, chases route-runners in an attempt to be ultra-physical; however, he only succeeds in putting himself into a low shoulder or even complete recovery position.
Promising flashes are not a reason for certainty in an NFL draft prospect. Branch lacks experience in zone coverage and is, as a result, inconsistent. He sometimes overcommits to one route that crosses his face and leaves another pass-catcher open for a reception. His range on the back end may preclude him from single-high responsibilities. He should not be deployed in a zone-heavy defense early in his career.
At the catch point, Branch’s borderline below-average size can be too apparent. Tight ends outreach and box him out even if his technique is great and he has remained in phase from release to the catch.
A star run defender, the Fayetteville native sometimes sees and reacts too quickly, thereby leaving himself in a bad position. His downhill angles as a tackler can be overly aggressive and give up the outside.
One of the top players in the nation in 2021, Branch boasts a special blend of NFL-ready physicality, run defense and man coverage. He also shows real promise in zone. In 2022, he must clean up his coverage technique and eliminate the mental lapses that plague his game in zone. Though some teams may view Branch as a pure nickel corner or a luxury pick, others may consider him a valuable chess piece. It is, thus, difficult to project his draft slot. On talent alone, the safety is an early Day-2 player who should start immediately in the slot and can be an elite special teamer. Branch has the potential to be a unique, versatile defender who can play anywhere in the secondary.
Grade (Floor / Ceiling): Starting nickel and, if a team opts to use him in this role, an elite special teamer / Versatile chess piece able to play any position in the defensive backfield.