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What's next for talented Lions DB Brian Branch?

ORLANDO – The Detroit Lions moved up in the second round of last year's NFL Draft to select Brian Branch knowing he was a versatile defensive back who could play the nickel cornerback spot and safety.

Once Branch got to Detroit, the Lions knew they had a really good player on their hands but didn't want to put too much on his plate as a rookie and let him focus on playing the nickel at a really high level.

Branch was phenomenal in that role his first season, finishing with 74 tackles (50 solo), seven tackles for loss, 13 passes defended and three interceptions, one of which he returned for a touchdown in his first NFL game (Detroit's win over Kansas City Week 1).

Now heading into his second season, a year in which most NFL players take their biggest leap in development, the Lions are ready to expand Branch's role in Aaron Glenn's defense.

"Certainly, Branch has flexibility to be able to play the safety position we believe here in time," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said Tuesday at the Annual League Meetings. "We already feel very confident about the nickel, and he'll only get better and better.

"It's how fast do we get him there? Because what you don't want to do is, 'Alright, he can play nickel and safety, but it takes away from his nickel play.' How good he is as a nickel or how good he can become. So, it's finding that fine balance between the two."

The Lions return Kerby Joseph and Ifeatu Melifonwu at safety but that's a position Campbell admitted the team still needs more depth and competition at with free agency still an option and the NFL Draft kicking off in Detroit next month.

Campbell said they went through a similar process with C.J. Gardner-Johnson as a young player in New Orleans when Campbell and Glenn were on that Saints staff. They let Gardner-Johnson just play nickel as a rookie, and like Branch, Gardner-Johnson really excelled in that role.

A couple years into his career, Gardner-Johnson also started playing safety and excelled in that role too. That's where he played the first two weeks of the season after signing with the Lions in free agency last offseason and at the end of the regular season and in the playoffs after returning from a torn pectoral muscle.

"It's just a matter of how fast he can get there," Campbell said of Branch also incorporating safety into his role. "But look, we're still going to look for safety help. It's not over either. We know we need to bring in some competition in that room. Our eyes are there as well."

Now that Branch has a year under his belt, Campbell feels he's ready to take on more responsibility in Glenn's defense.

"He's got a whole other understanding of the nickel position, which helps," Campbell said. "Now he can really start diving into the safety. Look, it's hard as a rookie. It's not easy to come in there and learn and play at a high level and do it consistently. So, yeah, he'll be a lot more comfortable this year."

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