Poise, playmaking translating early for Lions’ second-round pick Brian Branch

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions talk a lot about having a standard, a base level of expectations for the team’s players on and off the field, but rookie defensive back Brian Branch carries an even higher level of expectation, placed on him by first-year cornerbacks coach Dre Bly.

“Coach Bly is an amazing coach,” Branch said. “He teaches me the ins and out, the nuances having played the cornerback position. He also wore the No. 32, so he’s always getting on me about living up to his number.”

That’s a lofty bar. Bly had a stellar career, earning a pair of Pro Bowl selections and racking up 43 interceptions in 11 seasons with the Rams, Lions, Broncos and 49ers. But even though Branch is weeks away from his NFL debut, he’s making a strong impression in his first NFL training camp.

Despite missing rookie minicamp with an undisclosed injury, and an early training camp practice with a foot issue, the versatile defensive back hasn’t been slowed down, showing a comfort level beyond his years. Seeing snaps at multiple spots on the field, he’s broken up several passes the first week of camp, while also tallying a sack on a blitz.

“He’s one of those guys, you kind of see the lightbulb (coming on),” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “What showed up on the tape in college is beginning to show up already, up here, quickly. He’s an instinctive guy. He’s got some ball hawk ability.

“…You can see him grow and he’s another guy that is wired correctly,” Campbell continued. “He is wired right. He’s got a chip on his shoulder. He goes to work and he just wants more. He wants more, he wants more, he wants more. We’re happy with where he’s at, at this point.”

On Friday and Saturday, the team’s first padded practices of the offseason, the Lions put Branch to the test, asking him to cover the speedy, shifty Kalif Raymond in one-on-one drills. On the first day, Branch broke up one throw before conceding a hotly contested catch across the middle. The next morning, Raymond got the best of the rookie with a double move, getting significant separation before hauling in a deep pass.

“He’s a football-playing dude and he has a feel for it, he has a knack,” Campbell said. “In the heat of the moment, he doesn’t panic. I mean we had some one-on-one reps out there that we put him outside and he’s covering and doing a pretty good job for a guy that that’s not necessarily where we see him. So, man, there’s not panic in him and he’s a worker. He loves it. He’s not worried about anything else other than getting better so, it’s a good start for him.”

Raymond, who has caught nearly 100 passes the past two seasons, has been similarly impressed by Branch’s moxie.

“He’s got some talent for sure and he’s been stepping up, for sure,” Raymond said. “I’m excited for him. He works his butt off and he’s very instinctual. You can tell by the poise. He doesn’t have any fear in his eyes when he lines up across from you. He’s had that since OTAs. He has a lot of football instincts, and when he’s out there, he handles himself like he’s done it before.”

Viewed by most observers as the top safety in the most recent draft, the Lions were thrilled when Branch fell to them in the second round, pick No. 45 overall. General manager Brad Holmes, in the days after making the selection, noted he anticipated the Alabama standout might have come off the board in the later stages of the first round.

The pick certainly wasn’t need-based. The previous month, the Lions had used free agency to retool its defensive backfield, including the signing of C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who has high-level production playing the hybrid safety/nickel role Branch thrived in for the Crimson Tide.

Gardner-Johnson’s recent injury, which sidelined him a handful of practices before returning to action on Saturday, offered Branch an opportunity to get some first-team reps, hinting he might get to see the field more during his rookie season than originally anticipated. Regardless, Gardner-Johnson has been an eager mentor for the rookie, and the youngster is lapping up whatever knowledge the veteran is willing to offer up.

“CJ is a great leader,” Branch said. “He’s teaching me a lot of things I can put in my toolbox, and as a rookie, I’m just trying to soak all of that in from a guy like him, a vet like him, who has a ton of experience and excelled at this level.”

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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