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Take: The Jaguars should, and will, draft Brian Branch

Alabama’s star safety makes a lot of sense for Jacksonville at 24 overall

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NCAA Football: Sugar Bowl-Kansas State at Alabama Andrew Wevers-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to the first edition of my “Take” series, where -- you guessed it -- I’ll be writing my takes on the Jacksonville Jaguars.

To kick it off, I’ve fully talked myself into a first-round draft prospect: Alabama safety Brian Branch.

In no particular order, Jacksonville’s biggest needs are defensive back, pass rusher, and offensive lineman. If Joey Porter Jr. or Myles Murphy or Darnell Wright are available at 24th overall, the team would probably fumble its phone around trying to call in the pick.

Let’s assume the top of the cornerback, edge, and offensive tackle classes will be gone by Jacksonville’s expected draft slot. The Jaguars would have to reach a bit on a second-tier, premium-position player (e.g., Cam Smith, Will McDonald IV, Anton Harrison) or go with the best available prospect (e.g., Quentin Johnston, Bryan Bresee, O’Cyrus Torrence).

One of the latter options could be Brian Branch. He’s admittedly small, an unspectacular athlete, and doesn’t play an esteemed position, which doesn’t sound like a first round profile. But a) this draft class stinks and b) Branch is a good football player. The Jaguars need more of those, and despite his flaws on paper, the All-American safety is special on the field.

He’d also happen to address the team’s biggest weakness. Jacksonville couldn’t defend passes over the middle with any consistency last season, and it isn’t set up to this year, either. Nickel corner could use the biggest short-term upgrade, and the linebacker and safety rooms are adequate at best in coverage.

Branch, who primarily played in the slot for the Tide, would bring much-needed coverage abilities to the middle of Jacksonville’s defense.

Coaches want slot defenders who they can trust against the run, and Branch fits that gap. Pro Football Focus credited the three-year Crimson Tide starter with just four missed tackles on 174 career attempts and gave him the highest tackling grade among all defensive backs entering the draft. Jacksonville’s defense had more missed tackles than all but five teams in 2022.

The Jaguars also struggled to finish sacks last season, as they finished near the top of the league in pressures but closer to the bottom in sacks. Branch would mainly help out the pass rush by providing sound coverage on the back end, but he could also get after opposing passers himself. Second-level rushers are tasty ingredients to throw into blitz concoctions.

Is it reckless to compare him to Von Miller? Can’t say for sure.

Nick Saban’s former chess piece was “the only FBS player with 90-plus tackles, 14.0-plus tackles for loss and at least two interceptions” last year, per Dane Brugler of The Athletic.

Defensive coordinator Mike Caldwell could deploy Branch in Jacksonville similar to how his former coaching mentor Todd Bowles schemes up Antonie Winfield Jr. in Tampa Bay -- as in, all over the damn place.

Save for a Budda Baker trade, drafting Branch would be the single-most influential move the Jaguars could make to help its defense in 2023. And while Baker is an All-Pro player and fiery leader, the Jaguars would have to send compensation to the Cardinals for the right to hand him a record-breaking contract. Drafting Branch would be more cost-effective in the long run.

Speaking of which: while Branch is the best short-term fit for Jacksonville, don’t discount his long-term fit, either. The Jaguars do need players to eventually replace CB Darious Williams, LT Cam Robinson, and OLB Josh Allen. (Yes, and Josh Allen. The team has met with seven top-50 edge prospects. Listen to the Jaguar Report podcast imo.)

That said, SS Rayshawn Jenkins could also find himself outside of the building as soon as next offseason. Multiple Jaguars reporters have mentioned the possibility of Jacksonville drafting somebody to man the slot as a rookie before taking over for Jenkins down the road. The defense needs a safety of the future to pair alongside 2021 third-round pick Andre Cisco.

Plugged-in mock drafters Peter Schrager and Matthew Freedman recently had Branch going 24th overall to the Jaguars. Plugged-in beat reporter John Shipley has mocked Branch to Jacksonville three separate times in his pre-combine, post-free agency, and latest full first-round columns. The 33rd Team noted in its most recent mock, “The Jacksonville Jaguars love the versatility and attitude of Alabama’s Brian Branch.” Take your best guess as to Branch’s consensus landing spot according to NFL Mock Draft Database.

More importantly than media mocks, the team has shown direct interest in the player. Jacksonville sent defensive passing game coordinator/cornerback coach Deshea Townsend to Alabama’s pro day, where he worked one-on-one with Branch.

Shipley wrote an extensive article conveying just how important pro days are for the Jaguars. Townsend told Jaguar Report:

For one, you get to see the kid’s character, you get to interact with them, you know, it’s a chance to see him up live and in person. Just to get your hands on them.

Because a lot of times you can see the tape, you can, you know, you kind of get to see a lot of it, but it’s nothing like seeing someone move in person, like to feel them come out of a cut, or see what he struggles with when you look at him. So I think that’s the big thing again, the opportunity to go on campus and see the kid.

Trent and the scouts, they do a great job of giving us guys that they feel will fit you know, and then it’s just kind of goes ties hand in hand and then when you get a chance to sit with a kid, watch film, you get the opportunity to see how they will handle, you know what we’re looking for scheme-wise, can they handle that mentality-wise and then the physical part you know, you just kind of see live and in person.

There you have it. The Jaguars should, and will, draft Brian Branch in the first round of the NFL Draft next week.

Related reading: BCC picks up Brian Branch at No. 24