Andre Branch celebrates a win over Maryland. (Getty Images)
With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Right up to the draft, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Clemson DE/OLB Andre Branch. Clemson has fielded some outstanding defensive lines in the past two seasons. Last year, Tigers' Jarvis Jenkins and Da'Quan Bowers were both second-round NFL picks. Branch started on the same line as Jenkins and Bowers in 2010, as did Brandon Thompson, whose scouting report is coming soon here in the Shutdown 50. Watching tape of an outstanding defensive line eating the offensive line whole can be fun, but it can also be challenging: Everyone looks a little better when they are single-blocked, and rattled quarterbacks make sloppy mistakes that can result in easy sacks. In other words, it is hard to isolate the player from his teammates and the system.
Such is the case with Branch, whose size and first-step quickness are his calling cards. He can beat SEC left tackles into the backfield consistently, and opponents did not have many opportunities to double-team or chip him with Thompson collapsing the middle of the line. Will his sacks disappear against quicker, better NFL tackles? The tape is inconclusive, though it does show that Branch has the athleticism to be very good if he develops a more well-rounded game.
Pros: Branch gets such a great jump at the snap that he often appears to be offsides. He has outstanding first-step quickness, and he also anticipates the snap count well. Once he gets the edge on his blocker, he does a fine job turning back inside to get to the quarterback.
Branch is well built and has long arms, so if he develops better hand technique, he will be able to keep blockers from latching on to him and use swim-type moves while pass rushing.
Clemson used Branch as a hand-on-the-ground defensive end most of the time, often lining him up as a "wide-9" edge rusher far outside the tackle box. He did drop into zone coverage at times, however, and appeared to be smooth and comfortable in the role. If drafted as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he should not be a major liability in zone coverage.
Cons: Four of Branch's 10.5 sacks in 2011 came against Virginia Tech. It was a dominating performance, but it was too easy: The Virginia Tech left tackle was hopelessly outclassed. Branch beat him at the snap, and the blocker was left chasing and flailing after Branch. That game showed Branch's raw ability, but it was not representative of the kind of blocking he will see in the NFL.
Watch other games, and you see a very one-dimensional speed rusher who can be neutralized if he does not win at the snap. Branch can be pinned outside by his blocker and is mediocre in point-of-attack run defense. He does not demonstrate an inside move to the quarterback or vary his pass-rushing tactics. Despite two full seasons as a starter and three of regular playing time, he remains very technically raw.
Conclusion: Men who weigh over 260 pounds and can burst from a standing start with Branch's quickness are very rare. That is why teams place a premium on finding them. At times, that premium forces a team to select a pass rusher based on athleticism and potential, not overall productivity or technique.
That is what will happen with Branch, and it is not a bad thing. With good coaching, and in the right system, Branch could become an 8-to-10 sack producer as a 3-4 outside linebacker or a Wide-9 end in the 4-3. In the wrong system, however, he could wilt on the vine as a one-trick pony whose trick is only suited to a situational role.
Branch projects as a late first-round pick, which is good news for him: The tail end of the draft is filled with 3-4 teams, like the Steelers and Patriots, that know how to develop his type of player. Branch is the kind who can make a good defense great, which is not always the same as the kind of player who makes a bad defense good.
NFL Comparison: Aaron Maybin, New York Jets.
More Shutdown 50:
#35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse | #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall | #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers | #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina | #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska | #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska | #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU| #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy