Brian Branch

NFC North Notes: Bears, CJGJ, Vikings

The last time an NFL team used a franchise tag on a cornerback, the Bears were planning a Jay Cutler-to-Mike Glennon QB transition. Occurring back in 2017, Rams’ second Trumaine Johnson tag remains the most recent instance of a team tagging a corner. Mentioned as a possibility here when the Bears let Jaylon Johnson seek a trade, the contract-year defender being tagged adds up now that Montez Sweat is locked down via an extension. The Chicago Tribune’s Brad Biggs views it as likely the Bears tag Johnson to give them more time to work out an extension.

Receiving his first Pro Bowl invite this week, Johnson has put together a quality contract season — one he acknowledges has made him more money on his second contract. Johnson said in June he wanted that second accord to be with the Bears and reiterated that stance last month. Although the prospect of reaching free agency would understandably appeal to the former second-round pick, the Bears — the most recent team to use any tag on a cornerback, transition-tagging Kyle Fuller in 2018 — can keep Johnson in the fold via a one-year rental or attempt to hammer out an extension by the July deadline. The cornerback tag is expected to cost just more than $18MM.

Here is the latest from the NFC North:

  • The Bears’ plan to move Cody Whitehair back to center did not take off. Snapping issues plagued the veteran, while Pro Football Focus rates 2022 free agency pickup Lucas Patrick 31st among centers this season. Chicago is expected to pursue a center upgrade this year, Biggs notes, with The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain also predicting the team will aim to stabilize this spot (subscription required). Whitehair, 30, profiles as a cut candidate; he is due a nonguaranteed $10.15MM base salary in his 2024 contract year. Patrick has one game left on a two-year, $8MM deal. The Bears have some wiggle room here, with three starting O-linemen — Braxton Jones, Teven Jenkins, Darnell Wright — on rookie contracts. A handful of teams re-signed centers in 2023, but four-year starters Tyler Biadasz (Cowboys) and Lloyd Cushenberry (Broncos) are two months from free agency. Three-year Raiders center Andre James is as well.
  • C.J. Gardner-Johnson‘s return from a torn pec will give the Lions an unexpected boost for their playoff journey. It also could disrupt the team’s secondary. Ifeatu Melifonwu has been effective since usurping Tracy Walker as a starter alongside Kerby Joseph. The Lions initially stationed Gardner-Johnson in the slot, where he previously played under ex-Saints DBs coach Aaron Glenn, but the Lions DC moved him back to safety to accommodate rookie Brian Branch. Glenn said (via the Detroit Free Press’ Dave Birkett) the team is still determining its DB plan but confirmed Branch will remain the team’s slot corner. A safety rotation, then, seems likely to commence. Designated for return from IR last week, Gardner-Johnson is expected to return in Week 18.
  • Danielle Hunter maxed out his incentive package this season, with the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Ben Goessling noting the contract-year Vikings defender collected $3MM by reaching the 14-sack plateau. Positioning himself to do well as a first-time free agent, Hunter has registered a career-high 15.5 sacks. On what could be his final Vikings restructure, the 29-year-old edge rusher received $17MM guaranteed and added $3MM in incentives this season. This latest reworking prevents Hunter from being tagged this year, and the Vikings would be hit with a $14.9MM dead-money charge if they cannot re-sign their top sack artist the 2024 league year.
  • In the strange position of seeing both its top free agents-to-be — Hunter and Kirk Cousins — not profile as tag candidates (due to Cousins having already been tagged twice by Washington), Minnesota has big decisions to make soon. Cousins is at least ahead of schedule on his Achilles rehab odyssey, Goessling adds. Cousins, 35, should be expected back for training camp at the latest and has expressed continued interest in another Vikings contract. If the Vikings cannot re-sign Cousins by March 13 — the last day of the 2023 league year — they will face a $28.5MM dead-money total due to the void years in the leverage maven’s contract.

Lions Notes: LBs, Gibbs, Branch

The Lions had two picks in the first round of the 2023 draft, and they used both of them on non-premium positions. Detroit selected running back Jahmyr Gibbs with the No. 12 overall pick and added inside linebacker Jack Campbell with the No. 18 selection.

As the first off-ball ‘backer taken in the draft, it was fair to expect that Campbell would immediately be inserted into the starting lineup alongside veteran Alex Anzalone, who signed a three-year, $18.75MM deal in March to remain with the Lions. However, it became clear that such an assumption was a bit premature. 2021 fourth-rounder Derrick Barnes impressed during OTAs, while Campbell acknowledged that he was perhaps trying to do too much in his first taste of the pros (via Tim Twentyman of the team’s official website).

“I came in and I felt like maybe I was pressing a little bit early on,” Campbell said yesterday. “But right now, I’m just trying to settle down. My personality type I like to make sure everything is perfect. I just need to understand that mistakes are going to happen and as long as I’m playing fast everything is going to work out.”

While Barnes has earned the starting job next to Anzalone, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn made it clear that the team’s top four LBs — a group that also includes 2022 sixth-rounder Malcolm Rodriguez — will see plenty of action. Campbell showed off his tackling ability in Detroit’s preseason slate, and given the club’s investment in him, it is certainly possible that his snap share will increase as the regular season unfolds.

Gibbs, meanwhile, split first-team training camp reps with free agent acquisition and former division rival David Montgomery and will start the year as the pass-catching complement to Montgomery (he will likely get his fair share of carries as well). Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson told reporters, including Twentyman, that, “we might use Gibbs in some ways that people don’t quite think we might,” though it’s unclear exactly what that means. Most are already expecting Gibbs to line up as a receiver, but perhaps he could line up as a quarterback in the Wildcat formation (or maybe, with the season set to kick off on Thursday against the Super Bowl champion Chiefs, Johnson is simply engaging in a little misdirection).

Another rookie, Brian Branch, has secured the starting nickel corner job, per Twentyman. The second-round pick out of Alabama began taking first-team reps at the position after C.J. Gardner-Johnson suffered a knee injury early in training camp, and he immediately impressed. GM Brad Holmes, who engineered a trade-up to land Branch, said that the team had a first-round grade on the defensive back.

“He fits who we are, so you don’t know exactly how quick it’s going to turn on, but we’re not surprised that he’s making the plays because he’s doing, really a lot of the same things that he did at Alabama,” Holmes said.

Branch’s emergence will presumably allow the team to move Gardner-Johnson to safety, where he thrived with the Eagles in 2022.

Lions Eyeing Move To S For C.J. Gardner-Johnson; Brian Branch Receiving First-Team Reps

Expectations are high for the Lions’ defense in 2023 in large part due to the additions made in their secondary. Free agent signing C.J. Gardner-Johnson and rookie Brian Branch are among the new faces on the backend, and they could each find themselves in the starting lineup come Week 1.

Gardner-Johnson’s status as a first-teamer has not been in question, of course, after he posted six interceptions with the Eagles last year despite missing five games. The 25-year-old surprisingly only parlayed that into a one-year deal with $6.5MM guaranteed in free agency. His move to Detroit was expected to result in a return to his more familiar slot corner role (as opposed to the safety spot, where he spent most of his time in Philadelphia).

However, a knee injury Gardner-Johnson suffered early in training camp left him sidelined for a stretch. That opened the door to Branch filling in at the nickel spot, and his performances since then have him firmly in the mix for a starting role. The second-rounder has likely played his way into a first-team position, or at least notable rotational duties, as detailed by Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Branch was lauded as one of the most versatile players in the 2023 class, but playing him at corner would open up the possibility of moving Gardner-Johnson back to safety.

Doing so would represent a change in approach compared to earlier in the offseason, but it could allow the Lions to deploy their ideal combination of defensive backs. Gardner-Johnson shifting back to safety would relegate Tracy Walker to backup duties while he rehabs the Achilles tear which ended his 2022 season. The latter had paired with 2022 third-rounder Kerby Joseph last year.

Head coach Dan Campbell recently noted that Walker is still in consideration for a starting position, however, so plenty is yet to be determined (aside from Joseph’s first-team certainty) as the preseason approaches. Branch will be a key player to watch during exhibition season as he looks to win a starting gig right away, something which would put the versatility of Detroit’s new and highly regarded secondary to the test early in the campaign.

Lions Sign Round 2 S Brian Branch, Wrap Draft Class Contracts

The Lions are the latest team to finalize their draft class agreements, signing second-round pick Brian Branch to his four-year rookie deal. This agreement also should help other teams in finalizing second-rounders’ deals.

A defensive back out of Alabama, Branch went to the Lions at No. 45 overall. Entering Tuesday, no one chosen between Nos. 40 and 49 had signed their respective rookie contracts. The Lions striking a deal with a player in the middle of that glut should break some of the ice regarding guaranteed money.

[RELATED: Lions Ink First-Round RB Jahmyr Gibbs]

Carolina gave No. 39 overall pick Jonathan Mingo three years fully guaranteed with a partial Year 4 guarantee. That has held up the players chosen immediately after Mingo. It will be interesting to see the terms Branch agreed to, seeing as second-rounders continue to make strides on the guarantee front — so much so this year’s top second-round picks (Joey Porter Jr., Will Levis) are undoubtedly angling for fully guaranteed rookie contracts.

Branch saw extensive time at safety and in the slot for the Crimson Tide; he joins a team that has committed significant resources to improving its secondary. The Lions have added corners Cameron Sutton and Emmanuel Moseley along with safeties Branch and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The latter two are each experienced in the slot, and Gardner-Johnson — a former New Orleans disciple of current Detroit DC Aaron Glenn — is expected to see more time inside compared to his Philadelphia role at safety. That could impact Branch’s rookie-year contributions, but CJGJ is signed to a one-year deal.

Branch will be under contract through 2026. The SEC standout was on the radar to be a first-round pick, reaching that level after being the only Division I-FBS player to total at least 90 tackles, 14 TFLs and two interceptions in 2022. ESPN’s Scouts Inc. ranked Branch as this year’s 30th-best prospect. He figures to be a key factor for the Lions in the long term, but with Kerby Joseph and Tracy Walker in place at safety, it is uncertain what the versatile DB’s role will be in 2023.

Here is the Lions’ 2023 draft class:

Round 1, No. 12 (from Browns through Texans and Cardinals): Jahmyr Gibbs, RB (Alabama) (signed)
Round 1, No. 18: Jack Campbell, LB (Iowa) (signed)
Round 2, No. 34 (from Cardinals): Sam LaPorta, TE (Iowa) (signed)
Round 2, No. 45 (from Packers): Brian Branch, DB (Alabama) (signed)
Round 3, No. 68 (from Broncos): Hendon Hooker, QB (Tennessee) (signed)
Round 3, No. 96 (from Cardinals): Brodric Martin, DT (Western Kentucky) (signed)
Round 5, No. 152: Colby Sorsdal, OT (William & Mary) (signed)
Round 7, No. 219 (from Texans through Vikings and Eagles): Antoine Green, WR (North Carolina) (signed)

Draft Notes: Porter, Jones, Washington, Murphy, Anudike-Uzomah, Banks, Branch

Pre-draft visit season wrapped up this week, but teams squeezed in several meetings before the deadline. A few booked Joey Porter Jr. visits. The Penn State cornerback met with the Eagles, Giants, Saints and Panthers before Wednesday’s deadline, according to KPRC2’s Aaron Wilson and’s Ian Rapoport. Porter also visited the Steelers, Ravens and Raiders previously. Graded as a first-round talent, Porter stands to follow Devon Witherspoon and Christian Gonzalez off the board at some point on the draft’s first night.

Here is how other prospects’ visit itineraries wrapped up:

  • The Steelers closed their visit schedule by meeting with both tackle Broderick Jones, tight end Darnell Washington and edge rusher Felix Anudike-Uzomah, according to’s Brooke Pryor and The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly (all Twitter links). Jones, whom ESPN’s Scouts Inc. and’s Daniel Jeremiah rate as a top-20 prospect, met with the Chiefs, Jets, Patriots, Bears and Cardinals during the visit window. The Steelers briefly considered Orlando Brown Jr., and Mike Tomlin indicated he was comfortable with the team’s current Dan MooreChukwuma Okorafor tackle setup.
  • Anudike-Uzomah and Washington also met with the Buccaneers, per Wilson and’s Tom Pelissero (Twitter links). One of two high-level Georgia tight end prospects, Washington will enter the draft at least a year ahead of standout pass catcher Brock Bowers. After two sub-200-yard years, Washington totaled 454 and two touchdowns as a junior. Going 6-foot-6 and 264 pounds, Washington profiles as an in-line tight end with some receiving upside. Anudike-Uzomah totaled 19.5 sacks over the past two seasons at Kansas State. Both players profile as fringe first-round talents, with Jeremiah ranking Washington as the third-best option in this year’s deep tight end class.
  • Scouts Inc. rates Clemson’s Myles Murphy a few spots ahead of Anudike-Uzomah, at No. 23 overall, and the Washington Post’s Nicki Jhabvala notes (via Twitter) the Commanders took a recent look at the edge defender this week. After extending Daron Payne, Washington still rosters its four first-round D-linemen. But only one of the four (Chase Young) arrived during Ron Rivera‘s tenure.
  • Much of the NFL wanted to meet with Deonte Banks. The Maryland cornerback spent extensive time in two of the country’s time zones. In addition to his meetings with the Raiders, Ravens, Commanders and Steelers, Banks visited 10 more teams — the Saints, Titans, Vikings, Texans, Giants, Buccaneers, Eagles, Jaguars, Bears and Bills — before the pre-draft meeting buzzer sounded, Rapoport tweets. Jeremiah slots Banks 24th overall, ranking the ex-Big Ten cover man as this year’s fourth-best corner. A former three-star recruit, Banks earned a starting job as a freshman. A shoulder injury halted his junior year after two games, but the 6-foot defender bounced back last season to close his career on the first-round radar.
  • The Giants also huddled up with safety/slot defender Brian Branch this week, Wilson tweets. The Alabama contributor had previously met with a host of teams. New York expected to re-sign Julian Love this offseason but lost the safety to Seattle. The team, which selected slot corner Cor’Dale Flott in last year’s third round, signed veteran Bobby McCain to a low-level contract and has Xavier McKinney returning from an injury-marred season.

Draft Rumors: Murphy, Banks, Branch, Forbes, Torrence

One of the top edge defenders available in the draft, Clemson’s Myles Murphy will have a busy week. The 6-foot-5 pass rusher met with the Jaguars earlier this week,’s Ian Rapoport tweets, and Bengals, Falcons and Texans visits are on tap for one of Clemson’s two first-round-caliber D-line talents. Joining D-tackle Bryan Bresee on this front, Murphy submitted a consistent resume at the ACC power. In three seasons, the 268-pound edge recorded 18.5 sacks and 36 tackles for loss. The Jaguars, who have drafted an edge in Round 1 three times since 2019, go on the clock at No. 24. The Bengals, who have Trey Hendrickson and Sam Hubbard signed beyond 2023, hold the No. 28 pick. The Texans (Nos. 2, 12) and Falcons (No. 8) are needier on the edge, but their draft slots might not align with a player ranked just outside the top 20.

Here is the latest from the draft:

  • Both Scouts Inc. and’s Daniel Jeremiah grade Maryland cornerback Deonte Banks just outside the top 20 as well, but he appears to be interviewing well with teams and trending upward. The Commanders, Ravens and Steelers are three of the teams impressed by Banks, per the Washington Post’s Jason La Canfora, who adds others are intrigued by the 6-foot cover man. The Raiders will host the former Big Ten defender today, Aaron Wilson of KPRC2 tweets. The Steelers will be connected to Round 1 corners, having lost Cameron Sutton, and the Ravens have not re-signed Marcus Peters. Both Washington and Pittsburgh cut William Jackson over the past seven months. The Raiders, who have not re-signed Rock Ya-Sin, seemingly have a perpetual cornerback need.
  • In addition to Emmanuel ForbesLions visit, the Mississippi State corner is a popular pre-draft guest. The Cowboys, Eagles, Patriots, Steelers, Titans and Vikings are on his visit schedule, Jon Sokoloff of WCBI tweets, with Wilson adding the Bengals and Commanders will take a look as well. Forbes’ frame will certainly come up at these meetings. Despite posting a Division I FBS-record six pick-sixes and intercepting 14 passes in three seasons, Forbes being 6-foot and 166 pounds will be an issue for teams. Nevertheless, he profiles as a late-first-round talent.
  • Staying on the DB front, Alabama’s Brian Branch might be the best bet for safety-needy teams in what is viewed as a weak class at the position. The Falcons, Commanders, Raiders, Texans and Vikings are on Branch’s pre-draft itinerary, per Wilson, who adds the Bills have a workout scheduled for the multiyear Crimson Tide contributor as well. Branch has extensive slot experience as well, providing potential flexibility for teams considering him in the late first round.
  • Like Branch, Florida guard O’Cyrus Torrence profiles as the top player at his position going into the draft. The Louisiana transfer became a consensus All-American in 2022, and the Bills, Commanders and Steelers have auditioned him thus far, per Wilson and’s Tom Pelissero (Twitter links). Each of these teams have added at guard already this offseason. The Steelers signed both Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig, while the Bills signed Connor McGovern. The Commanders signed ex-Giant Nick Gates but have plans to use him at center, where he played before a severe September 2021 injury sidetracked his career.

Emmanuel Forbes, O’Cyrus Torrence, Brian Branch On Lions’ Visit Schedule

Connected to bigger names at No. 6 overall, the Lions have two first-rounders. Players who should be expected to factor into Detroit’s second selection — No. 18 — are showing up on their pre-draft radar.

Detroit’s No. 6 pick belonged to the Rams, via the Jared Goff trade, but the NFC North team is gathering intel on prospects who could be available at 18. The Lions will host Florida offensive lineman O’Cyrus Torrence on April 17, Aaron Wilson of KPRC2 tweets, adding a visit with Alabama defensive back Brian Branch is also on the team’s itinerary. Ditto Mississippi State cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, per WCBI’s Jon Sokoloff (on Twitter).

[RELATED: Lions To Meet With Will Anderson Jr.]

A transfer from Louisiana to Florida last year, Torrence finished his lone Gators season as a consensus All-American at guard. He grades this draft’s top interior O-lineman available, per Scouts Inc. and’s Daniel Jeremiah, who each have the one-and-done SECer ranked just outside the top 30.

The Lions agreed to a reworked deal with Halapoulivaati Vaitai this offseason and have their other guard starter, Jonah Jackson, going into a contract year. Graham Glasgow is back on the team, but the 2016 Lions draftee is on a one-year agreement. Vaitai’s reworked contract also removed 2024, moving the injury-plagued blocker into a contract year.

Forbes notched three pick-sixes last season and holds the career Division I-FBS record with six in his career, getting there despite playing just three seasons with the Bulldogs. Forbes intercepted 14 passes in total in college, but size will cloud his tremendous production numbers. The 6-foot-1 corner weighed 166 pounds at the Combine. Scouts Inc. still rates Forbes just inside the top 30.

Branch checks in a few spots lower, but the former Crimson Tide safety profiles as the headliner of a mediocre crop at the position. Branch, who goes 5-11 and 190 pounds, offers flexibility as well; he saw considerable time in the slot at Alabama. He joined Torrence as a consensus All-American last season.

Coming off a season in which they ranked last defensively, the Lions have made major additions in the secondary this offseason. They brought in Cameron Sutton and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The team also added ex-49er Emmanuel Moseley on a lower-cost deal and re-signed Will Harris. They traded Jeff Okudah to the Falcons on Tuesday. At safety, the Lions have Gardner-Johnson as an option — though, he primarily patrolled the slot during his time under Aaron Glenn in New Orleans — along with second-year cog Kerby Joseph and veteran Tracy Walker.

Alabama S Brian Branch To Enter Draft

Following the decision of three of his college teammates confirmed yesterday, the top safety in this year’s draft class is turning pro. Alabama safety Brian Branch announced on Instagram that he is declaring for the NFL draft.

Branch was an impact defender for the Crimson Tide throughout his three-year career with the team. His seven pass deflections made as a freshman demonstrated his ability to make plays on the ball from a different alignments. He increased that total to nine the following season, while adding 55 stops and five tackles for loss.

The 6-0, 190-pounder continued to show his versatility into his junior campaign. Branch has logged significant time playing as a nickel corner, allowing him to play closer to the line of scrimmage than a traditional free safety. Doing so has led to a number plays in run defense – as illustrated by his 90 tackles, including 14 for loss, made this season – but also those showcasing his range in coverage. He notched a pair of interceptions and three sacks in 2022.

Branch has established himself as the No. 1 prospect at the safety position, though he could easily find himself seeing time as a slot corner in the NFL. ESPN’s Mel Kiper has him ranked at 20th overall in the class, putting him squarely in first-round consideration. To no surprise, a number of early mock drafts have him hearing his name called on Day 1, including the latest from his colleague Todd McShay and The Athletic’s Dane Brugler (subscription required).

Both of those project Branch being selected by the Seahawks, a team whose surprising success this season has largely been driven by their rookie class. That group includes corners Tariq Woolen and Coby Bryant, the latter of whom has played in the slot rather than his more familiar role on the perimeter. Adding Branch to that duo would set up Seattle’s secondary for long-term success, but he figures to be in high demand from a number of other teams this spring.