Jets: ‘Plug-and-Play’ Draft Pick Could Set Up $7.25 Million Cut

Brian Branch

Getty Former Alabama safety Brian Branch at the 2023 NFL Combine.

New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh hinted that he was happy with his safety room at the NFL League Meeting, but one prospect at the position could be enticing enough to snag in round one — especially if NYJ ends up trading back a few spots.

The Athletic’s Zack Rosenblatt listed Alabama safety Brian Branch as the seventh strongest option for the Jets at No. 13 overall behind four offensive tackles, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba and defensive tackle Calijah Kancey. The added bonus of a Branch selection is that a move like this would most likely save $7.25 million in cap space too.

Rosenblatt explained why while voicing the pros and cons of a pick like this. “Branch as much as almost anyone on this list is a plug-and-play starter with a floor of being a quality player and a ceiling of being much more,” he wrote. “But the 13th pick just might be a little high to pick a safety, especially since it’s a position [general manager Joe] Douglas historically hasn’t valued as much. Drafting Branch would allow the Jets to move on from Jordan Whitehead and save $7.25 million, but the defense was also fine with Whitehead and Lamarcus Joyner last year, and already added [Baltimore] Ravens safety Chuck Clark this offseason.”

The beat reporter also noted that Branch ranks 17th overall on scouting expert Dane Brugler’s big board with The Athletic, 53 spots ahead of the second-best safety, Antonio Johnson, at No. 70.

Potential Jets Draft Target Brian Branch Played Minkah Fitzpatrick’s Role in College

Branch is the latest stud defender to come out of Alabama, and Brugler scouted him for Jets fans during his official draft guide: The Beast. “A four-star recruit, Branch was the No. 3 safety in the 2020 class,” he began, detailing his strengths.

He informed: “Quick-footed athlete with rangy movement skills across the secondary … naturally instinctive as a slot defender … sticky in man coverage and alert in zones … coordinated footwork to turn and run with receivers or plant, gather and go when he triggers plays in front of him … able to intercept angles because of his drive mechanics … calmly plays the ball well when he locates it … reactive athleticism limits big plays (allowed only one catch of 20-plus yards in 2022) … leverages well in the run game and takes proper pursuit angles … comes to balance in space, squares and delivers pop as a tackler … above-average blitzing skills … plays well near the line (only three fewer tackles for loss than Will Anderson in 2022) … was a regular on kick and punt coverages over his three college seasons.”

Brugler also pointed out that Branch stepped into Minkah Fitzpatrick’s old role at Alabama, starting three seasons as “the ‘star’ nickel position in head coach Nick Saban’s multiple scheme, lining up against the slot and playing in the box.” That’s a real versatile weapon for Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich to utilize on the defensive side.

Branch’s major weakness appears to be his size and strength at the NFL level, but that’s something that could be overcome based on technique, instinct and athleticism.

“Overall, Branch might not have elite size/speed measurables, but he is above average in almost every other category NFL teams covet with his well-rounded game to run, cover and tackle,” Brugler concluded. “He projects as a starting nickel [safety] in the NFL and offers hybrid versatility across the secondary, similar in ways to Miami’s Jevon Holland.”

The high-end prospect met with the Jets just after the 2023 NFL Combine in March.

Should Jets Retain Jordan Whitehead in 2023?

As mentioned in the introduction, Saleh spoke highly of the safety room earlier this spring.

“[Clark’s] getting into a safety room that we’re really excited about,” the Jets HC stated at the time. “I think Jordan’s [Whitehead] going to be a lot better playing in his second year in the system, and we got some young guys with Ashtyn Davis and T.A. [Tony Adams] — hopefully they’ll take another jump — so it’s a really good group.”

While the passing comment felt like a strong vote of confidence for Whitehead, it’s certainly no guarantee that Douglas will retain him when push comes to shove.

According to Over the Cap, the Jets can indeed save $7.25 million of his $10.232 million cap hit by releasing the veteran safety in 2023 — and they may end up needing that money if they trade for Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Depending on how draft night goes, it’s a legitimate option to consider if you’re Douglas and the NYJ front office.