While the first round of the draft is always exciting, and tends to be where teams find their most valuable player, it also serves to heighten the anticipation for the rest of the draft, particularly day two—especially if your team holds the first pick of the day, as the Pittsburgh Steelers do.
After all, many thought the Steelers would draft Penn State cornerback Joey Porter Jr. with their first-round pick. They didn’t, but now, with the 32nd overall pick, they still can. That’s not who Pro Football Focus believes is their best fit, however. In an article highlighting fits for all 32 teams on day two of the draft, the Steelers are connected with Alabama’s standout safety Brian Branch:
Branch played the role in Alabama’s defense once filled at a high level by Steelers safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. And he played it at nearly an identical level, too, with an 89.5 overall grade last fall. Having two safeties who are that versatile would open up a lot of creative opportunities for Mike Tomlin’s defense.
Alex Kozora listed Branch among the Steelers’ top options for day two of the draft, writing that “he has extreme versatility and hits a lot harder than his 190-pound listing might suggest”. That does sound like something this team could use.
The Steelers once gave up a first-round pick in order to get Fitzpatrick from the Miami Dolphins back in 2019. Could they use the 32nd overall pick to get another standout Alabama safety? Many thought that Branch could go in the first round, and he certainly could have. It wouldn’t at all be a bad pick.
After all, Pittsburgh lost five-year starter Terrell Edmunds at strong safety this offseason, as he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles. General manager Omar Khan admitted that they did try to re-sign him, though judging by the contract Edmunds accepted from their cross-state rivals, they didn’t put up that much of a fight.
The Steelers did re-sign Damontae Kazee to a two-year, $6 million contract, and he has ample starting experience in his first five years of the league. They also signed a former first-round safety in Keanu Neal to a two-year deal worth $4.25 million.
Neither of them project to be long-term franchise-level starting safeties, though. Branch could be that guy. And like Fitzpatrick, he is capable of being highly versatile with the ability to play in the slot. To have two starting safeties you can move all over the field is a defensive coordinator’s dream. Edmunds wasn’t quite that.
Head coach Mike Tomlin loves to talk about how the game of football has become increasingly specialized over the years, yet he also covets player versatility. That allows you to specialize with a minimal amount of personnel and makes what you’re doing less predictable.
Now, if I were on the phone, I don’t think Branch would be my pick. I would probably go for Porter, if I’m being honest with myself. But Branch makes a lot of sense. The Steelers need a slot defender, too, something Branch could potentially do as a rookie the way Kyle Hamilton did for the Baltimore Ravens a year ago.