The New Orleans Saints completed a long-term mega deal with franchise player Drew Brees, but several franchise players are still unsigned including Raiders' strong safety Tyvon Branch. Branch is a great player, a great leader and he's poised for a great year playing in Dennis Allen's modern defense. The Raiders haven't run a modern defense in over a decade and they need a safety like Branch to make it all work.
With the deadline to sign franchise players to long-term contracts on July 16, the talks should be heating up between the two sides. Deadlines typically accelerate talks and deals can be struck quickly once the sides agree on the overall compensation package. The framework of a potential deal has been in place since earlier this month when Tennessee Titans' safety Michael Griffin singed a long-term contract extension.
According to ProFootballTalk, Griffin signed a five-year, $35 million deal with $15 million guaranteed. Griffin's contract includes a $9 million signing bonus, $2.5 fully guaranteed base salary in 2012, $1 roster bonus in 2013 and a $3.5 million injury guaranteed base salary in 2013. The Raiders will likely push up the signing bonus to reduce the cap hit in 2012 and add larger roster bonuses in future years.
Branch is two years younger than Griffin and should get more guarantee money and he'll be well worth the extra money in Oakland's new defensive scheme. Branch is a versatile safety that is not only a great tackler, but he's also one of the best safeties in man coverage in the league.
In The Box
Branch has over 100 tackles in each of the past three seasons and it's the one area of his game that shows up on the stat sheet. Branch has been the leading tackler for the Raiders for the past two years in both total tackles and solo tackles. That's impressive considering the middle linebacker should have a significant advantage in that area.
According to ProFootballFocus, Branch missed only six tackles in 2011 on 89 attempts with a tackling efficiency of 14.8. No other safety with over 60 attempts had a better tackling efficiency than Branch. Branch carried over his solid tackling when dropping back into coverage as well.
By comparison, backup Mike Mitchell ranked in the bottom 20 in tackling efficiency, missing five of 25 attempts. With the current weakness of the linebackers and little quality depth behind Branch, the Raiders need to make sure he's on the field for years to come. It would be hard to imagine how bad the Raiders run defense would have been if Branch wasn't on the field.
Branch shutdown Rob Gronkowski and Antonio Gates in 2011 and as the trend towards super tight ends grows, so will the need for a safety like Branch. Branch is big enough, fast enough and agile enough to cover the new breed of tight end in the NFL and can also cover big slot receivers.
If you are looking for a favorable comparison to Branch, you might not find it. Branch is equal parts Brian Dawkins in his prime and Brandon Carr.
Interceptions drive the hype train for cornerbacks and safeties that play a lot of man coverage, but the NFL clearly knows their real value. Brandon Carr, a man coverage cornerback, recently received five-year, $50.1 million deal from the Dallas Cowboys, according to ProFootballTalk.
NFL.com analyst and former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah had this to say about Branch:
It seems everyone knows how good Tyvon Branch is except the media. Tom Brady had to focus on other options with Branch blanketing Gronkowski and would target Gronkowski anytime Branch wasn't covering him.
Former head coach Hue Jackson had this to say about Branch:
"I don't think he gets enough credit. I keep saying it. I think this guy is one of the best players at his position in the league. I just think people don't know it, because we don't highlight that position here. But he has had a tremendous season, and if you really had a chance to watch the tape and study the tape, I think No. 33 would jump off the film. He is having a heck of a season." (via Vic Tafur, SFGate.com)
Despite glowing reviews from scouts and coaches, the man coverage scheme in Oakland didn't make it easy for a player like Branch to make a name for himself. Interceptions are hard to get when your back is turned to the quarterback until the last second, but that could change in 2012.
Dennis Allen likes to blitz and disguise different zone coverages in the secondary. This approach could have Branch showing as a box safety and quickly dropping back into coverage and combined with pressure could put Branch in the position to make more plays on the ball. The secondary is going to be built around the versatility of Branch and Michael Huff like the 2009 Saints built around Roman Harper and Darren Sharper.
There are plenty of great players in the NFL that can't stay on the field. Troy Polamalu is a good example of a great safety that can't stay healthy because of his style of play. Branch is different, he's started 48 straight games and almost never comes comes off the field.
It's amazing for smaller player like Branch to stay healthy when he's mixing it up in the box with the offensive and defensive lineman. Branch stays in amazing shape and being that he's developed into a great safety at age 25, he's got several more prime years left.
It's no secret Al Davis didn't love to blitz and if he had it his way would have played man coverage and pressured with the front four only. That scheme relies heavily on two great defensive ends and two great cornerbacks. It's difficult to find and afford such players and defenses need to be more adaptable to the many different offensive schemes in the NFL today.
Allen's defense will utilize a lot of blitzing, including from the safeties and cornerbacks. Gregg Williams was a mentor to Allen and he blitzed strong safety Harper 291 times in 2011, which was 17.4% of the Harper's snaps according to ProFootballFocus. Allen didn't blitz the aging Brian Dawkins nearly as much as Williams sent Harper, but Dawkins was productive when he was sent on a blitz.
To rack-up the tackles like Branch has over the past three season, he's got to have good anticipation and be able to read the play. That should come in handy for Branch when he's sent on a blitz. Branch also has the elite speed to get around the edge or through a crack in the offensive line and pressure the quarterback.
Branch hasn't been asked to blitz, but he will be in 2012 and beyond and has all the necessary skills to be productive.
Leadership and Intangibles
When Nnamdi Asomugha signed in Philadelphia, the Raiders were absent their leader in the secondary and perhaps the leader of the entire defense. One of Michael Huff, Stanford Routt or Tyvon Branch would have to step up as the leader in 2012 and it ended up being Branch.
Countless times during the season Branch was directing linebackers, cornerbacks and the other safeties on their coverage assignments. Nearly as often Branch was left shaking his head when one of his teammates blew their coverage assignment. Expect Branch to take an even more active role as a leader in 2012, particularly if the Raiders sign him to a long-term deal.
Branch is often played harder and faster than everyone else on the defense. He's a great example of how the game should be played and if often making great plays that go unnoticed.
Not signing Branch to a long-term deal now will only cost the Raiders more later. The scheme change will finally highlight Branch as a player and he may quickly become the new face of an improved defense in Oakland. A statistical jump coupled with the increased cost of applying the franchise tag for a second straight year could push the cost a cap-killing level and make it even harder to strike a long-term deal in 2013.
In 2014 the salary cap is expected to jump significantly as the new television deals kick in and the Raiders don't want push Branch out that far and risk losing him to the highest bidder. Thankfully for the Raider Nation, the Raiders and Branch appear close to a long-term deal according to Jason LaCanfora of CBS Sports.
The Raiders can maximize their value by giving Branch a big deal in 2012 as his best play is yet to come.
Salary Cap Savings
According to Brian McIntyre of NFL.com, the Raiders have just $1.3 million in salary cap room. During the offseason only the top 51 players count towards the salary cap, meaning the Raiders have effectively no cap room to sign a veteran if the need should arise.
The Raiders have flirted with Cedric Benson and also could be in the market for other veteran players if they should lose someone to injury during the preseason. Signing Branch to a long-term deal could save the Raiders up to $5.5 million in salary cap room according to Steve Corkran of The Bay Area News Group, which is more than enough cap flexibility to bring in a couple of veterans should the need arise.