The following article is based on the opinions of external draft analysts.
We're heading into the fourth season of the Ron Rivera era, and the Washington Commanders have a pristine opportunity to strengthen their roster.
In his first season as Washington's head coach, Rivera took Chase Young, who became the 2020 Defensive Rookie of the Year, with the No. 2 overall pick. The next season, he drafted Jamin Davis with the No. 19 overall pick, and the former Kentucky Wildcat showed promise in his first season. And last year, the Commanders took Jahan Dotson, who wasted no time in becoming a valuable member of the Commanders' receiving corps.
Now, the Commanders have the No. 16 overall pick, and analysts are predicting them to go with a plethora of positions, from offensive line to cornerback and linebacker, at that spot.
In anticipation for that selection, Commanders.com will highlight one mock draft from a draft expert each week and delve into how that player would fit with Washington. Here are the players we have covered so far:
Next, we're staying in the SEC for the third week in a row to discuss the consensus best safety in the draft.
Brian Branch, S, Alabama
LSU running back Josh Williams got a harsh lesson on why it is not advised to try blocking Alabama safety Brian Branch.
After faking the handoff on a play action pass, Williams stepped up to the line of scrimmage to fill the hole in pass protection. He was quickly met by Branch, who came sprinting into the pocket on a blitz. Williams was promptly de-cleated by Branch, but the best part of the play was the way Branch took almost a full second to watch Williams stumble to the ground before rushing the quarterback.
Branch's physicality and habit for attacking blockers is only part of the reason why he is recognized by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., CBS Sports and The Draft Network as the top safety in this year's draft class. His blend of intelligence, instincts and athleticism makes him a rare prospect, and CBS Sports' Will Brinson has him being added to the Washington Commanders' talented secondary in his latest mock draft.
"Washington internally thinks it's closer to being a competitive team than most people on the outside," Brinson wrote. "They add another pro-ready piece to their secondary."
When it comes to positional need, safety is low on the Commanders' list. With players like Kamren Curl, Darrick Forrest and Percy Butler on the roster, adding another young safety to that group could be considered an immense luxury.
That may be the case with any other safety in this year's class, but Branch is a bit of a unique case. After being more of a role player in 2020 and 2021, Branch got the chance to be one of Alabama's starting safeties and earned First Team All-American honors for ranking third on Alabama's defense with 90 tackles -- his 91.8 tackling grade from Pro Football Focus was the best among all defenders last season -- while also recording seven pass breakups and two interceptions.
Branch's on-field I.Q. is perhaps his strongest qualities. Not only is he able to quickly read offenses and sniff out plays, but his intelligence also allowed him to play multiple spots on the Crimson Tide defense. Slot corner was his primary position with 67% of his defensive snaps coming from that spot, but he also saw time in the box, free safety and near the defensive front. He has a good sense of how to read quarterbacks, anticipate where they want to throw and jump routes to near perfection.
That versatility played a role in Branch getting the 10th best grade among all safeties from PFF last season, and it's why Alabama linebacker Henry To'oTo'o called Branch "the unsung hero" of the Crimson Tide's defense.
"He's so sneaky athletic that people really don't realize it," To'oTo'o said. "He's one of those key guys on our defense that makes so much plays where I think he doesn't get the recognition he deserves."
You will not see Branch's name near the top of any metric recorded at the combine last month. His 40 time (4.58), vertical jump (34.5 inches) and broad jump (10-foot-5) are all middling at best, although he did improve his vertical by three inches at his pro day.
But the lack of standout test numbers should not take away from the fact that Branch is a difference-maker when on the field. He excels in zone coverage, knows how to track the ball and knows how to effectively blitz and put pressure on passers.
As NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote in his evaluation of Branch, "There are areas where he can improve but no real weaknesses, which could make him one of the safest picks in the draft."
"He's quick, fast and strong with the ability to match up with shifty slots, bigger possession receivers and pass-catching tight ends. He's urgent and has a mind for the game. He takes playmaking angles into the throwing lane but does have a tendency to play it a little safe from off-man coverage."