Has a nice first step with the ability to get off the line well and blow past a lesser tackle. Has good bend and does a fairly good job dipping the shoulder in order to turn the corner. Will use his hands to disengage as an edge rusher. Flashes a nice rip move to get under the tackle's pads. Will get extension and flashes potential as a bull rusher off the edge. Has a nice motor and will give chase downfield. Has good closing burst and straight-line speed as a run defender, and able to deliver a pop as a hitter at times in pursuit. Does a decent job playing outside contain against the misdirection plays, able to stay at home. Able to get leverage against the tight end and lesser tackles at the point of attack, shed the block and make the stop at the point of attack. Has decent hips, and shows some comfort moving in space.
A bit of a tweener. Lacks the ideal burst off the edge as a stand-up rusher, and doesn't have the size as a down lineman. Gets pushed around a bit too much. Hasn't really quite mastered the bull rush, not really knowing how to get his hands inside and get push. Won't consistently dip the shoulder in order to turn the corner. Will try and juke the blocker off the edge and needs to play with better balance at times. Too effectively chipped by the back. Tends to overly rely on his speed rush and first step, which aren't overwhelming. Will get blown off the ball by a drive-blocking tackle. Tends to struggle to get off blocks by tight ends when working in space. Needs to do a better job squaring up lead blockers in the hole at the point of attack. Doesn't always do a great job breaking down and not the strongest tackler at the point of attack.
Branch is a solid pass rusher, but might not have the ideal skillset to be a top-end pass rusher. He plays both with his hand on and off the ground for Clemson off the edge. He's effective in both, but projects better as a stand-up linebacker in the 3-4 at the next level. He is still a bit unpolished as a run defender and in coverage, but that's a skillset that can be developed more with added experience. The issue with Branch was that at times he was a dominant pass rusher, usually when he was facing a lesser tackle. In the first game I saw him against Virginia Tech, he racked up a ton of production. But most of it came late in the game that was a blowout, and Clemson's guys could pin their ears back against Virginia Tech's not so stellar O-line. And in every other game, while an effective player, he never really took over a game.
2011 GAMES WATCHED:
(10/1) at Virginia Tech: 2 TFLs, 2 stuffs, 3 sacks, 1 QB Hit, 1 FF, 1 missed tackle; 1 penalty (late hit)
(10/22) vs. North Carolina: 0.5 TFLs, 1 stuff
(1/5) vs. West Virginia: 1 TFL, 1 pressure
2011: 14 GP/14 GS, 82 tackles, 17 TFLs, 10.5 sacks, 0 INTs, 1 PD, 1 FF, 1 FR
Branch has the potential to be a good complementary rusher at the next level. He's not a player that I expect to come in right away and be a major contributor. I think as a rookie, he could be a competent starter, particularly on a 3-4 team that already has a solid core of linebackers to take pressure off him. In time, I think he could grow into a solid and productive player that can make occasional plays, but he'll never be the sort of playmaker that will take over many games. Playing opposite a top-end pass rusher, he has the potential to be a guy that can tally 6-8 sacks per year. I think he's the type of player like Anthony Spencer is to DeMarcus Ware, in that he's a solid complement that can handle the coverage and run defending duties, while Ware keeps busy wreaking havoc on quarterbacks. I think he has a bit of upside as a pass rusher because he does bend well off the edge, and the fact that he doesn't have a stellar first step won't matter as much as it would as a 4-3 end. He has some pass rush moves, and if he can really develop a bull rush then he could possess a relatively full repertoire of moves to attack offensive tackles with. And if he's going against lesser right tackles than more polished left tackles, that could make a world of difference with his production. But if he does develop as that pass rusher, that will take him the better part of three years before you should expect to reap those benefits. As a 4-3 end prospect, I think Branch has enough burst and speed off the edge that he can be an effective situational player, but lacks the size and strength to think he's going to hold up well as a starter. He might be able to add some bulk and muscle and eventually develop into an every down rush end, but he won't be as impactful a pass rusher there because the better left tackles in the league probably won't fear his speed rush, especially if adding another 10 or so pounds forces him to lose a bit of a step. I think a 3-4 team will have to do a lot less work with him, especially as a pass rusher. Their biggest obstacle will be getting him comfortable playing in space, which I don't expect to be a huge obstacle that will keep him from becoming an effective to good starter down the line.
Anthony Spencer, Cowboys.
Branch is a better fit as a potential 3-4 outside linebacker if the Falcons intend to use a hybrid scheme than several of the edge rushers currently on the roster. While he's not developed as a space player and working in coverage, because he's still relatively young and untainted piece of clay, he can be developed there while guys like Biermann and Sidbury may have spent too much time at end to expect much change there. The issue for Branch is that he'll be hard-pressed to carve out significant minutes early on as a defensive end for the Falcons. In a year or two, you could expect him to have comparable value to Lawrence Sidbury, but certainly in his first year or so he's not polished or good enough to think he's going to add much to the pass rush or the rotation that isn't already there. There is upside with him developing as an edge rusher, but you may have to be patient before he can really start to emerge. He's just too raw as a linebacker to think the two-down linebacker, third down edge rusher is really going to work that much early on. At least in the sense where he'll deserve reps over players like Sidbury, Biermann, or even Stephen Nicholas at linebacker. Branch is more likely to be a guy the Falcons stash away on their depth chart for a few years and then if/when one of those guys moves on, then he gets his opportunity and is able to start to produce and contribute. But at least initially, he's not bringing much new to the table.
Branch is a good pickup for a 3-4 team, but because of his lack of elite upside as as a pass rusher, he's better served as a second round value. For an already established 3-4 team looking for a nice complementary guy rather then he wouldn't be a huge reach in the last few picks of Round one since he should be solid, but not great in that role.
1-pathetic, 2-poor, 3-weak, 4-below average, 5-average, 6-above average, 7-good, 8-very good, 9-excellent, 10-elite
Point of Attack: 6.0
Pass Rush: 7.5
"Vincere scis, Hannibal, victoria uti nescis" -- Maharbal, 216 B.C.E.