"Making the Cut"
As the Arizona Cardinals begin their quest to cut the team's roster size from 90 to 53 by the end of the preseason, we're taking a look at the key players at each position group and determining their odds of making the final cut.
Player: Tyvon Branch
Experience: 9th NFL season
Contract status: 2016-$3,500,000, 2017-$4,500,000
2015 season quick review: Branch spent the 2015 season as a backup safety with the Kansas City Chiefs and saw his fair share of playing time in sub-package situations. Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians has lauded Branch for the man-to-man coverage skills Branch displayed last year, and his experience as a nickel cornerback with the Chiefs is a skill the Cardinals hope to capitalize on in 2016. Though Branch made just one start with Kansas City a season ago, he recorded 43 tackles, 1.0 sack, and one interception in extended playing time. Branch is just three years removed from being a full-time starter with the Oakland Raiders, which is a team that benefitted from three consecutive 100-tackle seasons from Branch early in his career.
Projected roster status: As we've pointed out in the last few days, the Cardinals' defensive backfield is crowded. While few players are a guaranteed bet to make the roster, Branch should be as close to a sure bet as any Arizona defensive back because of the contract general manager Steve Keim rewarded Branch with this offseason. Branch is now the highest-paid safety on the Cardinals' roster, and trails only Patrick Peterson and Justin Bethel in terms of annual salary within Arizona's secondary. Keim did not offer many free agents with big contracts this offseason, so the fact the Cardinals went after Branch and secured him for two seasons suggests the team is committed to keeping Branch in the fold and making him a critical piece for the next two years.
Projected depth chart status: Branch may actually find himself in a similar depth chart situation to what he has encountered in Kansas City the last two seasons this year with the Cardinals. Though the depth chart is yet to be sorted out, there's a possibility Tyrann Mathieu and Tony Jefferson will man Arizona's starting safety spots with Branch serving as the all-important third safety in the Cardinals' defense. While Branch may not technically be a starter, Mathieu played nearly two thirds of his repetitions at cornerback a season ago and if Bethel struggles this season, Mathieu could play even more reps at corner which would put Branch on the field more frequently. Keim has publicly talked about Branch helping the Cardinals as a nickel cornerback, and because Arians has praised his man coverage skills, it's possible Arizona moves Branch down toward the slot and keeps Jefferson and Mathieu back off the line of scrimmage more often this season. The larger theme here is that regardless of Branch's depth chart designation, the Cardinals' propensity to play with an extra defensive back should give Branch plenty of opportunities to see the field.
Position group analysis: The Cardinals' defensive backfield loses both Rashad Johnson and Jerraud Powers this year, so the emergence and contributions of Branch are critical to the team's success. Arizona may be losing 50 percent of its starting secondary from a season ago, but the Cardinals drafted to offset the situation and the signing of Branch reinforces the concept of depth in the defensive backfield. Branch is the type of player who may still be worthy of a starting role on some teams, but because the Cardinals are so flexible with their personnel and committed to incorporating sub-packages, Branch may not be a starter in title but could receive the type of playing time befit of a traditional starting safety. The presence of players like D.J. Swearinger and Marqui Christian give Arizona assets who can walk down into the box and stop the run, while safeties like Branch and Mathieu can serve as coverage safeties and help lock down receivers in the passing game. Overall, Branch's presence makes the Cardinals more versatile, which is exactly what Keim and head coach Bruce Arians like.
Moving forward: As Branch enters the final stages of his career, it's unlikely the Cardinals view him as a long-term option at safety who can become a cornerstone of the defensive backfield. The likely rationale behind signing Branch is the potential he brings to the table as a "Win now," type of player who can give the Cardinals plenty of help in the secondary for the next two seasons. Branch was once regarded as one of the fastest defensive backs in the league, and he believes he still possesses game-changing speed. If this is the case, the Cardinals could absolutely benefit from his coverage skills over the next two seasons while still realizing the importance of finding a longer term solution to pair with Mathieu at safety.
Key skill: Man coverage skills
Branch's speed and experience as a nickel corner positions him to help Arizona immediately against slot receivers. Though the Cardinals drafted Brandon Williams to help alleviate the pressure of defending slot players, Williams is somewhat of a project and could take time to mold into a regular contributor for Arizona. Furthermore, Arians prefers to keep rookies limited in terms of game action early in their careers, so it's likely that even if Williams is ready to play against the slot from day one, he'll still spend time on the sidelines.
The addition of Branch means so much for the Cardinals because it allows them to play with an experienced veteran against slot receivers while giving defensive coordinator James Bettcher the freedom to play Mathieu wherever he chooses. Mathieu's versatility is the primary X-factor within the Cardinals' defensive scheme, but in 2015, he was often asked to play as a nickel corner because the Cardinals' simply didn't have many viable options to defend slot receivers. Now, Branch can step in while Mathieu fulfills different roles.
Branch's presence also allows the Cardinals to slow-play Mathieu's return from an ACL injury. If Mathieu isn't at full strength, Branch can play the role of a more traditional safety while Mathieu returns to health instead of carving out a niche as a nickel corner. Branch is somewhat of an insurance policy for the Cardinals' defensive backfield, but one that the team certainly needs.
Overall value: Though Branch is the highest-paid safety on Arizona's roster this season, he's just the 26th highest-paid safety in the league which suggests Keim has done a nice job of keeping the contracts for the Cardinals' defensive backs favorable for the team. One of the reasons Branch is the highest-paid safety is because Mathieu is playing out the final year of his rookie contract, so the former third round draft pick won't make more than $2 million this season despite being worth much more money. Branch's contract appears relatively fair for the Cardinals because they would have had difficulty adding a comparable player through free agency with a lesser contract, and it's likely Branch plays enough, and plays well enough, to merit the type of contract he signed. If Branch's skills as a nickel corner or as a traditional safety help offset the pressure Mathieu has faced on a weekly basis throughout his career, then the opportunity to free up Mathieu for various responsibilities makes the signing of Branch worthwhile.null