Depending on what the Pittsburgh Steelers decide to do in the coming days ahead of free agency, and then ultimately in free agency once that period opens with the new league year, the secondary in the Steel City could look drastically different.
Cornerback Cameron Sutton is set to hit free agency, as are safeties Damontae Kazee and Terrell Edmunds. Cornerbacks Ahkello Witherspoon and William Jackson III are expected to be salary cap cuts as well, opening up not only cap space, but clear space on the roster.
With so many changes potentially coming for the Steelers in the secondary, there’s a clear, obvious need to replenish the depth and fill some of those holes. They might have to get creative to do that.
Good news is, one player in the draft can wear a number of hats in the secondary and thrives doing it. That would be Alabama’s Brian Branch, who played the famous STAR position for Alabama the last two seasons under head coach Nick Saban — the same position current Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick played during his time in Tuscaloosa.
Able to play deep safety, box safety, slot corner and boundary corner, Branch can do a number of things defensively and is a promising chess piece for a defense looking to combat more explosive offenses in the NFL.
“My versatility is a great selling point,” Branch said to reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “I let them know, wherever they need me, I can play. If a team utilizes me to blitz, I can blitz. If a team wants me to cover the slot receiver, I can do that. If a team wants to me to drop into zone, I can do that, as well. I can be a safety and be the quarterback of the defense. I can do all of that.”
Branch was able to do all of that at Alabama, which has him on the cusp of being a potential first-round pick in April’s 2023 NFL Draft in Kansas City. One such team that could — and likely should — have interest is the Steelers.
It’s rather unlikely that the Steelers will be able to retain both Edmunds and Kazee at safety, opening up a real need for a versatile piece in the secondary with Fitzpatrick as the Steelers like to play that three-safety alignment in an effort to combat some of the more wide-open passing attacks while still being able to defend the run.
That’s where Branch could come in, allowing defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to utilize three safeties still, giving the defense that flexibility.
Branch met with the Steelers at the Combine and has stated he’d love to play under head coach Mike Tomlin alongside Fitzpatrick, adding that it’s something he’s dreamed about.
“I met the Steelers, I want to say day one, and Coach Mike Tomlin is definitely a player’s coach and I love that about him. And he connects with his players and being able to play for him would be huge.
“[It’d be] Huge,” Branch added about being paired in the secondary with Fitzpatrick. “It’s something I’ve dreamed of, I have visions of, when I sleep and just being able to play along a player like that is big to me.”
Branch, listed at 5’11 1/2″ and weighing 190 pounds, would be on the smaller side for an outside corner but given his ability to play safety and slot, seeing 569 snaps in the slot, 136 in the box and 25 snaps as a deep safety, his size shouldn’t be too much of an issue. We’ll see if that interest from the Steelers continues through the Alabama Pro Day and the pre-draft visits.
On paper though, Branch would be an intriguing fit for the Steelers and could help solve some issues on the back end for Tomlin, Austin and the franchise moving forward.
Here’s what Steelers Depot’s own Chandler Stroud had to say about Branch in his draft profile for the site:
“He just has a nose for the ball carrier, but you would like him overall to contest those deep balls a little more. His game is phenomenal when it comes to his closing speed on those short to intermediate routes. He plants his foot and gets directly to the target. He plays close to the line of scrimmage, causing mismatches as far as overloads for the offensive line, shifting the box and the count of bodies there for the offense to account for. You also just want to see him get those much-needed takeaways for his team. He’s way too talented of a player to not be consistently taking possessions away from other teams.
“He is also a certified hitman. He is going to have that Ryan Clark effect on teams immediately, making opposing teams not wanting to throw that direction, and making receivers hesitant to want to try to catch the football around the middle of the field.”