Brian Branch, Alabama Crimson Tide (September 17, 2022)

Brian Branch – © USA TODAY Sports


Layout of the Preview:

1) Brief Positional Overview
2) Top 15 Prospects. Includes Grade, NFL Comparison, Summary, Extra Thoughts

*Comparisons are more about physical profile and play style, NOT projection

3) Grades only: 16-25

*Grading Scale:

90+: All Pro
85+ Pro Bowl
81-84: 1st Round / Year 1 Contributor / Starter
79-80: 2nd Round / Year 1 Contributor / Year 2 Starter
77-78: 3rd Round / Contribute by end of Year 1 / Year 2 Starter
74-76: Early Day 3 / Special Teams / Future Backup / Possible Starter
71-73: Mid-Day 3 / Special Teams / Future backup / Gamble Starter
68-70: Late Day 3 / Back End of Roster / Practice Squad / Developmental
65-67: Preferred UDFA
60-64: UDFA

4) Positional Approach – Draft Weekend


The Giants have their focal point of the safety group, and arguably the entire secondary, in Xavier McKinney. But after three years, he has played in 32 games and missed 18. He does not deserve the “injury-prone” label just yet, as the 2022 injury was sustained during an off-field incident. But this is a huge year for McKinney, a free agent after the season. We have seen glimpses and the talent is obvious. This is an every-down, every-situation threat but we need to see more. The pieces around him are not stable and the signing of Bobby McCain reinforces that notion. Dane Belton and Jason Pinnock will get their crack at serious playing time, but McCain provides the veteran safety net that was left behind by the Julian Love departure. This group needs to take a step up in 2023.


1) Brian Branch – Alabama – 6’0 / 195

Grade: 85

NFL Comparison: PJ Williams / NO

Junior entry. Two-year starter from Fayetteville, GA. All-SEC and All-American in 2022. Branch is a versatile defensive weapon that can fit into any defensive scheme at multiple spots. He can adjust the usage of his tool set to best fit into whichever role works best. He can be a missile from the back end that makes plays behind the line of scrimmage (led national defensive backs with 14 TFL), he can blanket a receiver in coverage and make plays on the ball (16 PB past two years), and he has one of the lowest missed tackle rates in FBS (all positions). This is a twitched up, explosive, physical player with all the parts that add up to a back seven defender that can be built around. Branch is going to be a force in the league and adds instant upgrades across all levels the moment he is put on the field.

*Branch has been the top inside defensive back all year. I first put eyes on him in early October and every week I walked away with the feeling that this is the kind of safety every team is looking for. Think Julian Love on steroids. He plays incredibly fast downhill and in pursuit, he shows excellent instincts against the intermediate and short passing game, and he does not miss any tackles. Just an ideal fit for a nickel safety role. I don’t like him in deep coverage roles, that is where the lack of top gear gets exposed. If he falls to #25 (I do not think he will), could NYG consider him? My short answer, absolutely yes he needs to be considered. Branch will be better than Love early on, and that is still a spot, in my eyes, that looks great on paper.

2) Jartavius Martin – Illinois – 5’11 / 194

Grade: 84

NFL Comparison: Kareem Jackson / DEN

Fifth year senior. Five-year starter from Lehigh Acres, FL. Second team All-Big Ten in 2022. Began his career as an outside corner and moves inside to a nickel safety role. Martin saved his best for last, playing his way into number one safety contention as a fifth-year senior. With the number of teams looking for a player with this exact skill set, Martin can make a strong case to be considered both the best athlete and best tackler among all nickel-role players in the class. His tape is impressive. He plays fast and physical with very limited mistakes. His workout at the combine may have been the most eye opening of all the safeties. Martin really is a middle of the field defender with the cornerback skills set. The experience at both spots will only ease the transition to the next level. He is a year-one starter with immense upside.

*A sneaky name to keep an eye on as draft weekend approaches. Martin grades out incredibly similar to Branch and is undoubtedly a better athlete. When you think about the void left by Love, Martin’s game is hard to ignore. This Illinois secondary was so much fun to watch and admittedly I did not give Martin the attention he deserved early on. On the deep dive portion of the process, he just kept checking box after box. He then goes to the combine and tears it up. This kid is all business, all the time. Coaches are going to love him. He has a real shot at being a first rounder.

3) Jordan Battle – Alabama – 6’1 / 209

Grade: 80

NFL Comparison: Adrian Amos / GB

Senior entry. Four-year starter from Fort Lauderdale, FL. Two-time All-SEC including first team honors in 2021 and 2022. Battle earned his way onto the field as a freshman the old-fashioned way. He stood out on special teams via hustle and assignment-savvy role playing. The size and speed were already there. Once he proved to one of the more demanding defensive back coaches in the nation that he could make good decisions and play at a high level within the scheme, there was no looking back. Battle is a shot caller from the back end. He will be a quick learner and should soon be the leader of a secondary at the next level. Battle is reliable but shows a limited ceiling in coverage. He plays tight and will not reach all his points in reaction-based coverage. However, his anticipation and obvious signs of intelligence combined with the passion for the game will go a long way. If his range in coverage is not relied upon too often, Battle will be an asset to the defense and special teams in multiple ways.

*Battle screams New England Patriot to me. Maybe not the most impressive athlete (but no slouch), but a smart and physical player that knows where to be. Battle is not a playmaker, but he would be an ideal complement to one. I don’t see him taking over games or ending up in the Pro Bowl year after year, but he will have a long career full of steady, reliable play. You will simply have to be OK with him getting burned from time to time.

4) Sydney Brown – Illinois – 5’10 / 211

Grade: 80

NFL Comparison: Kevin Byard / TEN

Fifth year senior. Five-year starter from London, Ontario. Three-time All-Big Ten, including a first team honor in 2022, a season where he tied for the national lead in interceptions with six. Father played for three seasons in the CFL. Twin brother, Chase, is also a credible draft prospect in the running back group. Brown is one of the most physical players I have ever scouted. He is jam packed with power and twitchy, explosive muscle. He has the lower body of a power-running back, obviously showing signs of taking his training seriously. This is a kid that eats, sleeps, and breathes football. The Brown twins overcame significant adversity as children and have become young men that are mature and developed way beyond their years. Sydney is a force that will add an instant jolt of energy to the defense and special teams’ units. He goes from zero to sixty in an instant and now the anticipation is catching up. He plays with such range and constant violence. Look around post-whistle and you will almost always see him near the ball. Brown’s thickness, speed, burst, and versatility are rare. The lack of radius can be an issue against tight ends and he needs to hone the pursuit aggression at times, but this player is going to get his name called over and over at the next level.

*I’ve been waiting for years for this kid to enter the draft. I have had him as a day two pick for a long time now. His 6 interceptions last fall put him on the national spotlight, and it appears others have now caught on. Brown will have some detractors because of his poor coverage against bigger receivers, namely tight ends, and over-aggressive pursuit. I think he is the kind of kid that is going to fix his issues while playing faster than everyone else. At the very worst, he will be the best special teamer on the team.

5) Ji’Ayer Brown – Penn State – 5’11 / 203

Grade: 79

NFL Comparison: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix / FA

Fifth year senior. Two-year starter from Trenton, NJ. Spent two seasons at Lackawanna Community College prior to transferring to Penn State during the Covid year. This was the same path taken by former Penn State safety and 2022 second rounder Jaquan Brisker. He earned third team All-Big Ten honors in both seasons respectively as a starter. Brown led the team with six interceptions in 2021 and led the team with 75 tackles in 2022. His play style supports the notion this kid is all over the field and will factor across multiple forms. His quick trigger and aggressive downhill style can be both a blessing a curse. His range is credible both in coverage and pursuit. He is the catalyst to several big plays for the defense. Brown’s instincts and decision making can be questioned, however. He is often caught out position and there are some movement-based shortcomings that have allowed explosive plays for the offense. This is an all or nothing player right now but there is no denying the playmaking potential he has if a coaching staff can develop his mental side.

*Some are saying Brown has a shot at being the second safety taken. I’m not there on him, but I did watch a lot of his 2021 tape heading into this season and it is easy to fall in love. His trigger is difference-making. Some evaluators even give him a check-mark when diagnosing his instincts. I’m not there with him, either. I think Brown is a guesser. After watching seven games of his from 2022, more than I wanted to watch, that is my evaluation. Just too many steps in the wrong direction and not enough pure speed to make up for it. I suspect teams will have love/hate here when contrasting views between each other. A “risk-it” defense will take him.

6) Antonio Johnson – Texas A&M – 6’2/198

Grade: 79

NFL Comparison: Kamren Curl / WAS

Junior entry. Two-year starter from East St. Louis, IL. Two-time All-SEC, including first team honors in 2022 despite missing three games due to injury. Johnson has the physical profile and play to support the role of an interchangeable safety. While he is at his best flying downhill and pursuing the football, he spent most of his career in a nickel/slot – type role. He plays with a wide radius that stems from plus-height and length and has enough fluidity in his hips to move in any direction on the fly. This is the kind of defender that can excel against the athletic tight ends that cause issues for defenses weekly. Johnson is physical, but he lacks power. He is quick the ball but will overshoot his target often. He has good speed, but not enough to stay with pro vertical threats down the field. He is a quality, versatile player but there is a ceiling to his grade because there are too many mistakes and noticeable caps on his tool set. He should be a solid starting safety that will do his best against the action in front of him.

*On paper, Johnson looks like an ideal safety for today’s NFL. Good size, good enough speed, versatile sustained production in the SEC. The deeper dive exposed shortcomings that made him dip down the stack a bit. Still a good player and someone I can see starting in the NFL. But for a guy that won’t cover a deep half or stick to wide receivers in the passing game, I wish I saw more of an enforcer here. His contact is too light and he simply is not strong enough for that role in the league. With what tight ends are doing now, Johnson will be an asset, albeit a limited one.

7) JL Skinner – Boise State – 6’4 / 209

Grade: 77

NFL Comparison: Israel Mukuamu / DAL

Senior entry. Three-year starter from San Diego, CA. Two-time All-Mountain West, including first team honors in 2022. Skinner has a unique body type that does not show up at safety often. He looks like a track athlete and/or basketball player; overly lean and long. The lack of bulk and high-cut frame can cause issues against the speed and suddenness of pro receivers, but Skinner is a proven playmaker underneath and can win in contested situations. His role is interchangeable, but most of his impact will be felt when covering tight ends and in pursuit. The impactful tackler and instinctive decision maker will have a wide spectrum of good and bad, but a good defensive mind and complementary pieces around him should be able to hide the deficiencies that stem from his body type and skill set. Skinner will provide good special teams play early on and at the very least will be a strong matchup killer against athletic tight ends.

*This is not my favorite body type when projecting safeties to the next level. The high-hipped movement is an issue if he is put in the wrong scheme or role. His radius is not something passers want to deal with, however. If Skinner can cover tight ends and be kept out of space against receivers most of the time, he can be a factor. Skinner is a playmaker and plays stronger than he looks. He tore his pec in training, but I expect him to be ready for OTA’s. He may even host his own private Pro Day in early April.

8) Jammie Robinson / Florida State

Grade: 76

NFL Comparison: Damontae Kazee / PIT

Senior entry. Three-year starter from Cordele, GA. Spent two seasons at South Carolina, where he started for one of them, prior to transferring to Florida State in 2021. Two-time first team All-ACC. Led the Seminoles in tackles both years since the transfer. Robinson is a small but rocked up chess piece that was used all over the defense. His versatility is a major plus. The skill set allows him to align anywhere and the defenses that like to interchange their safeties will gave him an extra look. Robinson immediately elevates the level of physicality and tackling a defense possesses. His violence alone will make a difference immediately both on defense and special teams. The downhill and ability in pursuit combined with such a small number of missed tackles will make him a reliable last line defense. His tightness and lack of route anticipation in coverage will make life difficult in coverage. He does not have the flashy, smooth movement and the lack of radius will be exploited by tight ends. Robinson did not make a ton of plays in coverage and there are concerns with how exactly he can be hidden. His contributions will flash, but the scheme needs to protect him.

*Pure box safeties that play more like a linebacker than a defensive back (think Jabrill Peppers) can be found on day three every year. They get picked day three and end up contributing early on, albeit in a limited role, and everyone is left wondering why another team spent a first rounder on a box safety. Robinson is this year’s guy. Now, don’t get overly excited or catapult him in the stack. He has limitations and will get roasted by savvy route runners. But you need some more punch coming from this role? And get it from day three? Here is the guy. Fun player to watch.

9) Ronnie Hickman – Ohio State 6’0/203

Grade: 75

NFL Comparison: Chuck Clark

Fourth year junior entry. Two-year starter from South Orange, NJ. Second Team All-Big Ten in 2021 after leading the Buckeyes in tackles. Hickman will be a box safety at the next level. He played the role of a linebacker nearly as much as he did a traditional safety. The physical, hard-nosed defender plays fast downhill, even borderline reckless. His quickness and burst will get him to the action against the run in a hurry often. Once there, his ability to finish is inconsistent. Hickman misses too many tackles for a guy that has broken up seven passes in three years. He was not put into a lot of difficult coverage roles throughout his tenure. There is some hesitation and tightness in his movement that will not bode well against NFL receivers. Hickman’s potential impact against the pass will come against backs and tight ends. He has a thick and long frame and can hide some of the technique flaws against that caliber of an athlete. No matter where he ends up on the defensive depth chart, Hickman has the potential to be an ace special teamer, a true difference maker. He will find a home in the league initially for that reason and what he develops into will largely be based on his ability to clean up his pass defense.

*Another box safety that, if in the right situation, can make an impact against the run and underneath. There have been flashes of more complete play. I was asked in December about him and prior to going deep dive on him, I said day two. I had seen enough to warrant that view. As time went on and I really got a look at his hip movement in coverage on top of too many missed tackles, I had to bump into day three territory. He looks the part. Catch the right film and you will see a starting safety. He just needs to get more consistent. But just like a few of these guys, he will be a high-impact special teamer.

10) Chamarri Conner – Virginia Tech – 6’0/202

Grade: 75

NFL Comparison: Tracy Walker / DET

Fifth year senior. Four-year starter from Jacksonville, FL. Two-time All-ACC. Conner was a nickel corner until 2022, where he moved to a safety role but still saw plenty of snaps lining up across from the slot. In a growing role that more and more teams are using, Conner is the kind of third safety that comes on the filed in sub-packages. His versatility shows up both on the stat sheet and film. With over 20 tackles for loss and 20 pass break ups over his career in which he started 48 times, Conner has proven production across both facets with a ton of experience under his belt. The risk with him revolves around poor tackling and angles in coverage. He does not have enough speed to make up for initial losses and his lack of body control can be an issue when locating the ball. There is a looseness to his lower half that screams potential, 0and he brings the aggressive play style teams want on the back end. If he can smooth the edges to his tackles and ball reactions, Conner can be an early contributor a third safety. 4th-5th round.

*Teams looking for a pure cover-bias safety, Conner could easily be a top five safety on their board. My stacks are not necessarily for a particular team and my criteria wants someone a bit more physical to be considered day two unless there is a special trait elsewhere. Conner is a poor tackler, he replicates a corner in that department. The hope here is he can put some mass on, play the hybrid role (a recurring theme in this class if you haven’t noticed), and offer matchup advantages down the road.

11) Christopher Smith – Georgia – 5’11 / 192

Grade: 74

NFL Comparison: Jalen Mills / NE

Fifth year senior. Three-year starter from Atlanta, GA. Ended his career as a First Team All-SEC and All-American. The Bronco Nagurski Award finalist benefitted from playing with such a talented group of players for the two-time National Champions, but do not overlook how important of a player he was. Smith primarily played free safety, but the high school cornerback recruit had more than a fair share of snaps at nickel and even in the box as a dime linebacker. The intelligence and instincts stand out on tape. He is constantly around the action and that is a major reason why he shows so much versatile impact week to week. He comes well-prepared weekly. The issue with Smith centers around his size and speed. Neither are impressive and that will be an issue in the NFL. He projects to a specialty role that can come on the field in specific nickel / dime packages. He also has some potential on special teams. Smith’s physical grade screams day three, his mental grade could be considered round one. His grades will be all over the place league wide.

*If a team is willing to overlook the size/speed shortcomings, Smith can be a surprise day two pick. History tells me he will be day three and could be in for a bit of a draft day slide. The thing about Smith, though, is the fact his game has always been about instincts. He is moving toward the action before others and that easily makes up for a tenth of a second in a forty time. I do not view Smith as a starter, but I do see him as a guy that plays every week. One of those underrated players that sometimes only coaches truly understand the value of.

12) Gervarrius Owens – Houston – 6’0 / 195

Grade: 73

NFL Comparison: Josh Kalu / TEN

Fifth year senior. Four-year starter from Moore, OK. Spent three seasons at Houston after transferring from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M where he also started and was a JUCO All-American. Owens was a cornerback for a year before transitioning to safety in 2020. His size and movement traits better with what we see in the middle but there is enough speed and fluidity to occasionally play a corner role here and there. Owens is an explosive, well-built missile from the back end that can really put his foot in the ground and go. His closing speed gets him to where he needs to be in a blink. Owens will flash big play ability, but he also flashes big mistake potential. He sells out on his initial read and will get caught by looks-offs and double routes routinely. The missed tackle rate also strengthens the “all or nothing” feel to his game. If he can channel some of the aggression and improve his ability to finish plays, Owens can be a starting caliber safety. If not, he will be a special teamer and quality backup.

*Similar to a player discussed above, Owens passes the initial test but once you watch a lot of his tape, it is easy to tell there is a lot of guessing in his game. If he can truly process the information and play at his highest rate of speed, he can be a player. Watch out for guys like this coming from a program that does not exactly invest in defensive resources. First exposure to high quality coaching could turn a light on. Owens has that kind of untapped upside. I like him a lot as a day three prospect.

13) Kaevon Merriweather – Iowa – 6’0 / 205

Grade: 72

NFL Comparison: Deshon Elliot / MIA

Fifth year senior. Three-year starter from Belleville, MI. Second Team All-Big Ten and All-American in 2022. Merriweather is a box safety that excels with short area movement and overall instincts. His suddenness to the ball stems from textbook techniques and more importantly a sixth sense for the action. His ability and effort to prepare is obvious on tape. Merriweather, a team captain, is highly touted for his intangibles both by coaches and the media. His production is versatile, as he will factor well against both the run and pass. His speed limitations are obvious, however. He does not have the extra gear to make up for lost time and space and he is often outraced to a point by the ball carrier. Merriweather will find a home on special teams and as a backup box defender, but his upside in coverage is limited to specific underneath roles.

*There will be significant limitations to Merriweather’s game in space. It was my concern coming into the pre-draft process and his workouts only confirmed them. A very good tackler and likely special team ace, Merriweather will have some value as a quality backup, perhaps even a dime linebacker type.

14) DeMarcco Hellams – Alabama – 6’1 /203

Grade: 71

NFL Comparison: Nate Ebner / RET

Senior entry. Two-year starter from Washington, D.C. Hellams began his career as a key special teamer and third down defender. He earned a starting role in fall-2021 camp, but a leg injury forced him to miss some time early in the year. One back up to full speed, he proved to be a versatile and reliable defender with the action in front of him. He led the team in tackles as a senior, proving to be a reliable last line of defense. Hellams is an instinctive player that minimizes separation underneath, but the questionable deep speed and slower-than-ideal build up can make him a liability deep. The few times he was challenged against pro-caliber vertical threats did not end in ideal fashion. His best role would be as an extra box defender in sub packages with the potential to evolve into an every down player. At the very least, Hellams will be a stud special teamer and run defender that can fit into the back end of a depth chart.

*My thought in drafting Hellams would center around special teams more so than defense. I think that will be his calling at the next level. There is too much tape where the NFL-caliber speed exposed the tight hips and lack of deep speed. Smart player that worked his way through adversity at Alabama does mean something, though. I bet we see his name beyond the rookie deal.

15) Daniel Scott – California – 6’1 / 208

Grade: 70

NFL Comparison: Darrick Forrest / WAS

Sixth year senior. Two-year starter from Pasadena, CA. Scott will turn 25 early in his rookie season. The two-time All-Pac 12 performer is a classic example of a college player that never says die. He was buried on the depth chart for years but started turning heads as a special teamer, winning a team award for the best special teams player in 2019. Slowly but surely, he turned himself into a sub-package defensive back then into a starter that finished top three in tackles and led the team in interceptions two straight seasons. He is a densely built, quick-footed cover man with great instincts and feel. He understands offensive concepts exceptionally well and knows how to direct traffic from the back side. Scott’s biggest downfall is a lack of physical presence both in run support and against tight ends. There is too much absorbing contact rather than deliverance. He figures to continue his path as a strong special teamer at the next level that does show ability to impact the passing game via turnovers and instincts.

*I am a bit lower on Scott than what I have heard. I did go back to his tape after seeing he got a late Senior Bowl invite, but my view remain unchanged. Scott is crafty and smart. He is quick and agile. He proved he can produce across multiple areas. But when I see the tape, I don’t see the standout NFL traits that carry over. He is short-armed and lacks a physical presence as a tackler. I’m not sure I see enough speed over the to roam a deep half. He surprised many with his ascent in college, perhaps he will do it again. He isn’t young, though.


16) Brandon Joseph – Notre Dame – 6’0/202: 71
17) Ja’Von Hicks – Cincinnati – 6’1/200: 71
18) Rashad Torrence – Florida – 6’0/193: 70
19) Trey Dean III – Florida – 6’2/200: 69
20) Anthony Johnson – Iowa State – 6’0/205: 69
21) Tanner McCalister – Ohio State – 5’10/191: 69
22) Jay Ward – LSU – 6’1/188: 69
23) Jordan Howden – Minnesota – 6’0/203: 69
24) Brandon Hill – Pittsburgh – 5’10/193: 68
25) Jason Taylor II – Oklahoma State – 6’0/204: 68


The discussion begins with how impactful the loss of Julian Love will be on this secondary and defense overall. He led the team in both snaps and tackles by a landslide. He was second in tackles for loss, tied for the team lead in interceptions. Don’t overlook the fact he was a key special teamer, finishing second in the group in tackles and fifth in snaps. Does the combination of Dane Belton and Jason Pinnock seem good enough? Will Bobby McCain and his cornerback skill set provide the safety net should those two falter? The discussion then moves on to the long-term projection of McKinney, drafted by the previous regime. McKinney does not have a cornerback skill set, yet both Buffalo safeties (while Schoen was there) did. He’s been injured multiple times. And to repeat what I said earlier, he is a free agent next offseason. While I do think the team will try to lock him up, one would be foolish to believe this position group is all set in stone. This class’ safety group has multiple nickel-safety prospects who I like a lot and it is a role I think this defense will be looking for. While there are other needs on this team that are currently stronger, this is my sneaky pick for the first or second rounder in this draft. It would make sense on so many levels.