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Lions think Branch is ready for a bigger role on defense

Brian Branch wasn't just one of the best rookie nickel cornerbacks in the NFL last season. He was one of the best nickel cornerbacks period.

In his rookie season, Branch totaled 74 tackles (50 solo), 13 passes defended and seven tackles for loss. He also ranked second among all rookies with three interceptions, one of which he returned for a 50-yard touchdown in his NFL debut against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs Week 1.

He really showed the kind of impact he can have on a game in a Week 3 win over Atlanta when he became the NFL's first defensive back since at least 1994 to produce a game with at least 10 tackles, three tackles for loss and two passes defended.

What can we expect from Branch in Year 2 with the game slowing down and him having a year under his belt? It turns out it could be an expanded role that includes some run at safety too.

"Last year they were a little more hesitant with BB (Branch) to just kind of fix him at one spot. Now that he's going into Year 2, I think we'll be more aggressive with him," Lions defensive assistant Jim O'Neil said this week.

"He's the type of player you want to see out there on all three downs, so we're going to push him to that. At the end of the day, he still has to come out in training camp, and he has to take that job."

O'Neil said defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn prefers his nickel corners to have some safety in their background because of how much they ask those players to get into the run fit. Playing nickel cornerback is a tough job in this league, especially in the Lions' defense, because players are asked to cover like a corner, fit the run like a linebacker and communicate and do multiple jobs like a safety.

Branch didn't take part in the spring OTA and minicamp practices as he was rehabbing from postseason surgery. He is expected to be ready to hit the field come training camp, and it will be interesting to see how the Lions cross-train him and where he splits his time.

If the Lions are a little thin anywhere on defense it's at safety. Starters Kerby Joseph and Ifeatu Melifonwu are back but there's not a lot of experienced depth behind them.

"I think he can be really good," O'Neil said. "I think he can [be one of the] better ones in the league coming off the rookie campaign he just had and some of the things he did coverage-wise and run-fit-wise and blitzing. I'm excited about him. I'm really excited about him."

O'Neil said Branch had a great spring in the classroom as the coaches made him over-communicate his responsibilities at both nickel and safety. They can't wait to see how he translates it to the field.

"In the role he had last year I thought he played really well as a rookie," O'Neil said. "Now it's, can he make the next jump as a second-year player and can he make the next jump maybe just being fixed as a safety or maybe being a safety and a nickel? That's all things we're going to figure out in training camp."

Passing game coordinator and defensive backs coach Deshea Townsend thinks Branch is ready for a bigger role in Detroit's defense.

"Anytime you're going from your first year to your second year is going to see some improvement especially mentally," Townsend said. "Just seeing his improvement in the classroom this year has been major. He's a football player. Wherever he's needed he'll get it done. He's a guy that you know can play nickel and you know he can play safety, it's just what's best for the team."

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