Extremely athletic; has the athleticism to play in space
Good start on a repertoire of moves
Can drop into coverage
Needs more strength to stay as a 4-3 end
Ability to stop a drive block
Had potential to produce more
Finesse player; lacks physicality
Summary: Branch is the latest in the line of Clemson edge rushers who could go early in the NFL Draft. Over the past five years, the Tigers have sent the likes of Gaines Adams, Philip Merling, Ricky Sapp and Da'Quan Bowers into the NFL. Clemson has been a factory for speedy, athletic pass-rushers, and Branch definitely fits that description.
Branch was a complement to Bowers and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson in 2010. He had five sacks with 8.5 tackles for a loss, 54 tackles and six passes broken up. Three of those five sacks came from games against North Texas and Presbyterian. He had a lot of good matchups, but didn't produce as much as his athletic skill set seemed capable of. He improved his production significantly as a senior, collecting 77 tackles with 17 tackles for a loss, 10.5 sacks and one forced fumble in 2011.
Branch played well against Auburn in the third game of the year. He didn't fare so well against Florida State left tackle Andrew Datko a week later, however. After that game, Branch exploded for four sacks in one game against Virginia Tech. He was an inconsistent, streaky player despite having the added benefit of playing next to Thompson.
There is no doubt that Branch is a gifted athlete. He has a fantastic get-off and rare speed to turn the corner or dart back to the inside. Branch has worked on some pass-rushing moves, but his speed rush is his bread-and-butter. He does well in pursuit against the run and works his way across the field. Branch was at his best when he was going upfield rather than holding his ground at Clemson, but he will want to improve his ability to anchor at the point of attack when runs come straight at him. Still, Branch has a lot of raw speed and athleticism to attack offensive linemen.
Branch's best fit in the NFL could be at outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. He may lack the strength and physicality to consistently beat NFL offensive tackles in a 4-3 over four quarters. Branch's speed and finesse style could be better suited for playing in space. He has the athletic ability to be a dangerous edge rusher if he lands with the right team and coaching staff.
Branch was a bit of a one-year wonder in college, and there could be some bust potential with him. The consensus view is that he will go in the late first or early second round.
Player Comparison: Jermaine Cunningham. Branch's game is reminiscent of Cunningham when he was coming out of Florida. Cunningham had tons of physical talent, but was streaky and didn't seem to produce as much as he seemed capable of. The Patriots took Cunningham (6-3, 260) in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft (54th overall).
Branch is a candidate to go higher, as he could crack the end of the first round or go early in the second round. Cunningham hasn't panned out yet for New England, but he still is a young player who could improve. It wouldn't be surprising if Branch requires a similar adjustment period at the next level.
NFL Matches: Houston, Green Bay, New England, Jacksonville, Miami, Seattle, Dallas, New York Jets
There are many teams that are looking for edge rushers, so Branch has many different potential landing spots. The Texans lost Mario Williams in free agency and could consider Branch late in the first round. Green Bay badly needs an edge rusher opposite Clay Matthews, and Branch could be a fit there. The Patriots have to improve their pass rush, and the Clemson pass-rusher could be considered for one of their first-rounders.
If Branch falls into the second round, the Jaguars could consider him if they don't take a defensive end with their first pick. Miami needs another rusher opposite Cameron Wake. If the Dolphins don't take an end in the first round, Branch could be a good option for them in the second. The Seahawks are also in the market for defensive ends, and Branch has some of the skills that defensive line coach Todd Wash looks for.
A draft-day fall for Branch could end in the middle of the second round with the Cowboys or Jets. Both teams are looking at 3-4 outside linebackers, and Branch would be a nice option for either team.