Gardner-Johnson played over 150 snaps each last season in Philadelphia at box safety, slot cornerback and free safety. He's a true Swiss Army Knife for a defense. The Lions think they might have another player like that in Branch.
"Thankfully, Alabama prepared me. I got a little advantage," Branch said of the usual hardships of learning to play multiple positions on defense at the NFL level. "Just studying the playbook every day. That's how you learn it."
We didn't get a chance to see where the Lions plan to line Branch up initially because he sat out the open rookie minicamp practice with a minor injury he said was no concern for him. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has Branch learning both safety spots and the nickel cornerback position, per Branch.
"I have to learn every position because you never know," he said. "Easiest way to get on the field."
A three-year starter at Alabama, Branch played the "star" nickel position in Nick Saban's multiple scheme defense, lining up in the slot and playing in the box. He was the only player in the FBS with 90-plus tackles, 14.0-plus tackles for loss and at least two interceptions this past season. Branch missed just 2.3 percent of his tackles in three seasons with the Crimson Tide.
View photos from offseason workouts on Monday, May 15, 2023.
"He has playmaking ability and he's an instinctive player," Lions assistant GM Ray Agnew said of Branch. "He makes plays all over the field. He can play multiple spots. He's a tough kid, a gritty kid. He's just a playmaker. We like those Alabama guys. They are good football players."
Branch said he plans to work with veteran players like Gardner-Johnson when the rookies join the vets for OTAs. It's a good situation for Branch to come in and learn from a similarly versatile player in Gardner-Johnson with a track record of success in the NFL. Not many rookies are afforded that luxury, and Branch doesn't plan on wasting the opportunity.