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By the end of the 2010 NFL season the Oakland Raiders will have two members of their secondary at the Pro Bowl.
It goes without saying that Nnamdi Asomugha will be representing the Silver and Black in Hawaii again this year. As pro football’s premier cornerback (sorry Darelle but you need three proven years of shutdown status to get into this convo) Asomugha has finally received the attention he deserves for his brilliantly consistent play.
However, if Nnamdi takes a peek over his shoulder he’ll see #33 closing in on a Pro Bowl selection faster than Tyvon Branch closes down runners at the line of scrimmage.
The Syracuse native has taken a very unorthodox path to NFL stardom. Attending the University of Connecticut – a school known more for hoops than football – didn’t exactly make Branch a household name when Mel Kiper discussed draft prospects. While flying beneath the radar in Connecticut he popped up on the NFL map by covering 40 yards in a blazing 4.31 seconds.
If nothing else, you knew Al Davis would want to get a closer look at Tyvon. And so he did by taking the then cornerback in the 4th round.
Branch played some nickel corner before being converted to strong safety as a rookie where he saw limited action thanks to injuries. Still, his play was solid enough that the Raiders severed ties with starting safety Gibril Wilson after playing just one year of a six year deal.
While Wilson was solid against the run, he was a liability in pass coverage. Combine that with a salty attitude and it took the organization no time at all to trust Branch with the starting job.
All Tyvon did was go out a lead all NFL DB’s in tackles during the ’09 season.
You can chalk a lot of those 124 open field stops to the continued poor play of the Oakland front seven in defending the run. You can also credit a lot of those tackles to Tyvon’s ability to quickly diagnose plays and react with the instincts of a seasoned vet.
Despite standing just a hair over 5’11” and barely tipping the scales at 200-pounds, Branch is a sure tackler who uses his Raider speed to fly to the line of scrimmage, stopping offensive players of all sizes dead in their tracks. Branch registered 7 games of double digit tackles in ’09.
While the layman might be more familiar with media darlings Troy Polamalu and Bob Sanders, the football aficionado became very aware of Branch in 2009. So much so, in fact, that Tyvon actually received an All-Pro vote for his outstanding play last season.
Give defensive coordinator John Marshall a lot of credit in Tyvon’s development. The Marshall plan called for Branch to be everywhere on the filed on any given Sunday. Putting Tyvon’s track background to good use, Marshall routinely let Branch off the chain on safety blitzes and relied heavily on the strong safety’s instincts to sniff out runs and quickly snuff them out.
While his stock is soaring, there is still room for improvement in Tyvon’s game. At times he takes the wrong angle in pursuit, turning his speed from a weapon to a hindrance. Branch is improving in pass coverage but he is still nowhere near the ball hawking prowess of Polamalu or Ed Reed. Also, there is something to be said for playing for a team with a winning record. Just ask CBSSoprts.com writer Pete Prisco who wrote the following on Branch back in May:
The league’s most underrated player is Oakland Raiders safety Tyvon Branch. Haven’t seen him? Many haven’t. But he’s the real thing.
It’s too bad he plays for the Raiders. More people should know him
Too bad for Prisco that he’s not a Raider fan, he could watch the best young safety in the league play every Sunday.
It took the league not throwing at Nnamdi for two years before he finally got his due. If Tyvon Branch adds a few INT’s to his resume, chances are the 23-year-old will be getting his props much sooner.