With the release of Kurt Coleman, safety became one of the Panthers biggest needs going into the offseason; currently, the only four safeties on the Panthers’ roster are Mike Adams, Colin Jones, Demetrious Cox and Damien Parms, with Jarius Byrd a pending free agent. While Adams will likely return to his starting spot and Jones has a well-established role as a special teamer and jack-of-all-trades fill-in, both Cox and Parms are highly unproven and Byrd is somewhat removed from the player he once was. What this means is that the Panthers are all but certain to add a safety during the offseason. While help and the safety spot could (and most likely will, at the very least in a depth piece) come in the draft, they would be foolish to enter the draft in the position they currently find themselves. With this in mind, who could the Panthers target to fill this safety void in free agency?
2017 (8 games): 69 tackles (54 solo), 6 passes defended, 1 forced fumble. 2017 Cap Hit: $2.2m
Despite missing half of last season with injury and starting the 2018 season aged 31, Branch’s value as a free agent may never have been higher. Extrapolated over a full season, Branch would have ranked 28th in the NFL in pass deflections, fourth in combined tackles and first in solo tackles. What’s more, the tape is just as impressive.
As an in-box run defender, Branch fails to stand out simply due to his consistency; gap discipline was a persistent issue for the Panthers at times last season, with Daryl Worley and Mike Adams being persistent culprits. Like Adams, Branch was often used as a five-gap defender and showed an ability to hold the edge before crashing to make the tackle, such as on the following play (for reference, Branch wears #27):
Where Adams had issues was when the formation dictated that the outside corner become the edge defender and Adams was asked to check into the inside gap. On the following play, Branch dives inside the tackle to plug the gap and then also is able to free himself enough to help the corner make the tackle outside:
Branch continues to demonstrate this gap discipline when lined up over an interior gap. On the following outside run, he is able to sift through the traffic to identify his gap and makes the tackle:
Crucially, Branch shows not just the ability to put himself in the correct position, but also to make the tackle once there. On the next play, Branch is effectively isolated against one of the best running backs in the league in Zeke Elliot and managed to make a controlled and effective tackle:
What does stand out about Branch’s run defense is his ability to go beyond what the scheme asks him to do; on both of the following plays, Branch is lined up away from the play and, diagnosing the play effectively, he is able to pursue to the ball and make the tackle.
It cannot be overstated how effectively consistent Branch was in the run game, and depending on how the Panthers look to use their safeties this season, this could be extremely beneficial. What will undoubtedly be useful, however, is his understated value in coverage. While Branch doesn’t pick off a huge number of passes, with just five interceptions in nearly one hundred career starts, he showed an effectiveness in a variety in coverage roles.
One way in which Branch was used extensively in zone coverage was as a ‘robber’, sitting underneath the deep zone safety in order to take away the intermediate middle. Here, Branch showed not just the athleticism to move with receivers but also the awareness and understanding to identify the receiver he is meant to pick up and, in many cases, prevents the pass from ever being attempted:
Even when he does allow a reception, he rarely (if ever) allows for gains after the catch:
While the deep safety role isn’t Branch’s strength, he was occasionally used in this way in Arizona. While both of the following plays were completed, Branch does show the ability to again prevent run-after-catch opportunities:
Branch was occasionally used in underneath zone as well, and while on this play he is unable to prevent the completion, he again shows good tackling technique to limit yards after the catch:
As a zone defender, Branch is good rather than exceptional, and while he wouldn’t be hugely suited to a deep safety role if the new Panthers’ defense includes such a role, as an underneath zone defender he would offer a significant upgrade.
Branch was often asked to line-up against tight ends in man coverage, and was extremely effective in this role. He again shows the speed to run with tight ends in space, even the highly athletic Eric Ebron:
He then uses this ability to run deep to sit over the receiver and can then work back to shorter routes. Ebron gets away with a slight push on the first of the following plays, but Branch shows the ability to recover and makes the tackle:
On more complex routes, Branch shows the ability to follow tight ends throughout the routes, such as on the following plays:
As with his zone coverage and run defense, Branch also shows the awareness to make plays outside of his role. On this next play, he is tasked with covering Ebron down the field, but recognizing the pass to the underneath receiver, Branch quickly breaks off and makes the tackle:
This speaks to the final part of Branch’s value, his ability to make tackles in space. While some plays are simply limiting the damage:
Others allow for him to create big plays for a defense, most commonly on screens and the like:
Although Branch might demand more money than the Panthers want to assign to the position (Spotrac expects him to command around $5m), he is arguably one of the best pure tacklers in the NFL and his ability in both man and zone coverage would give the Panthers a much-needed security blanket on the back end.