The Tyvon Branch-to-the-Pro Bowl bandwagon is picking up passengersand speed."Tyvon is, in my mind, a Pro Bowl player, without a doubt," Raiders defensive coordinator Chuck Bresnahan said this week of his strong safety. "This is a guy who, every game, he comes with his 'A' game. Effort wise, tenacity wise, playing physical and doing what you ask him to do. And we do move him around."He plays safety in base, he plays nickel in nickel, he plays in a corner position in our big package against big personnel. He does anything we ask him. He never says a word. He comes out and practices a thousand miles-an-hour every day at practice."He is the epitome of a Pro Bowl player in my mind."Apparently, fans have noticed as well, even if the fourth-year defensive back from UConn does not have the cachet of say, a Troy Polamalu. In fan voting for the Pro Bowl, Branch is third among AFC strong safeties, behind Polamalu and Buffalo's George Wilson.Branch's 88 tackles are the most by any strong safety in the NFL, nine more than Wilson, and are seventh-most of any player in the AFC. Plus, Branch has a sack, a fumble recovery, three passes defensed and an interception. He also dabbles in being the gunner on the punt team.So how does it feel to be in so many Pro Bowl conversations?"Man, I just want to get to the playoffs," Branch said. "That's what I tell people. I'm doing my part to try to get us to the playoffs. And whatever comes of that, it just happens."Sunday, he'll have an opportunity to show his skills against the unbeaten and untied defending Super Bowl champions in Green Bay.So what jumps off the film at Branch, a fourth-round draft pick in 2008?"It's crazy, because when you think about them you think they're doing something crazy, but they really just have a basic offense," Branch said. "They just line up and think that their guys are better than yours, and that Aaron Rodgers is going to put the ball on the money. And you know, he does it consistently. That's their game plan -- my guy is better than yours."It's worked for 18 straight games for the Packers.And a Pro Bowl nod might be solidified for Branch with a big game at Lambeau Field. Especially if he can pick off Rodgers. Twelve strong safeties in the NFL have more interceptions than Branch.More picks would mean more recognition."I think especially with fan voting and all that," Bresnahan said. "Just the name, the household name, you have to get it out there a little bit. But I think his peers know. The guys that watch him play or play against him every Sunday know what Tyvon Branch does. It clearly shows on film."Anybody that knows football, sees the impact that he has on a game."Besides, Branch hopes to not be in Honolulu for the Pro Bowl. Not with the two conference champion teams preparing for the Super Bowl that day."Exactly," he said.
The Raiders want a better interior pass rush. That’s no secret, especially after they finished 2016 with a league-low 25 sacks despite getting 18 combined from edge rushers Khalil Mack and Bruce Irvin.
Head coach Jack Del Rio said that was an issue at season’s end, and general manager Reggie McKenzie mentioned a desire to improve at every level of his defense.
He has a reputation for building a bully up front as he did on the offensive line. He can add players through free agency, but quality veterans cost a pretty penny during a time when prioritizing extensions for Derek Carr and Khalil Mack . The NFL draft might provide an opportunity to strengthen the interior defensive front.
Respected NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said in a Monday conference call that there are plenty of interior options in a deep defensive draft. He says quality can be found when the Raiders pick first at No. 24 overall, or later in the selection process.
“I think there is really good depth in the first three or four rounds for the interior D-line,” Mayock said.
That’s good news for the Raiders. They’ll get a closer look at interior linemen during this week’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, when prospects go under the microscope in workouts and meetings during a pivotal pre-draft gathering.
Florida’s Caleb Brantley and Michigan State’s Malik McDowell have been mentioned as possible late first-round options who might entice the Raiders at No. 24.
Mayock believes Brantley could help the Raiders inside, especially as a pass rusher.
“I think he's intriguing,” Mayock said. “He's a quick, one-gap guy. I don't think you want him playing three downs every snap. But as far as an ability to rush the quarterback and get an edge on interior offensive linemen, I think he's got that burst that you're looking for.”
The Raiders aren’t necessarily looking for a three-down player. They have some run-stopping specialists under contract next season, especially Justin Ellis. It’s possible Dan Williams gets released to create more cap room, but the Raiders could survive adding someone who can get after the passer inside.
McDowell is an intriguing prospect as well. He has immense natural talent and physical size – McKenzie prefers drafting big guys up front – though he needs refinement. Like Raiders 2015 second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr., McDowell was a five-star recruit out of high school who had some injury issues last season. He’s a versatile piece with a high ceiling at just 20 years old, and could work well with the line rotation and create havoc inside.
Edwards Jr. is capable of doing that when healthy. He missed most of last season with a hip injury, which left too much responsibility on raw rookie Jihad Ward and other unfit to getting a steady pass rush.
“I think he's one of those guys that can kick inside in sub packages,” Mayock said. “I think he's got that kind of size and versatility to play inside and out, and they really missed him.”
Mayock also mentioned interior options outside the first round, including Charlotte’s Larry Ogunjobi. He considers Ogunjobi a second-round pick with pass-rush ability and potential in the run game.
“There are some guys out there that can help even through the third round,” Mayock said.
The analyst mentioned UCLA’s Eddie Vanderdoes, Tulane’s Tanzel Smart, Auburn’s Montravius Adams and Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson as options through the third round.
There are other options at No. 24 overall, especially if quality interior defensive linemen are available in later rounds. The Raiders need help at interior linebacker and in the secondary. Latavius Murray could leave in free agency, and while there’s plenty of depth in that position group a Stanford product could interest the Raiders at No. 24.
“Who is going to help them? Is Christian McCaffrey on the clock at that point? Who could help the Oakland Raiders at No. 24?” Mayock said. “I think the running back situation is interesting. I'm not sure there are going to be any tackles at that point. I think they also have to look at linebackers and at 24, I think there are some interesting guys off the line linebackers also.”
The Raiders were pretty darn good last season. A 12-4 record proved that point. There was plenty of talent on a team with a penchant for high-wire acts in victory that masked the fact there were holes on the roster.
They need to be filled for the Raiders to improve in 2017, and new players will be imported through free agency and the draft.
Left tackle Donald Penn is excited to see who gets added, but said there’s no doubt talent is coming to Oakland. He speaks for Raiders players, who have faith that general manager Reggie McKenzie will make the right moves.
“Things that Reggie has done in past drafts have been great, and we’re looking forward to seeing what he brings back towards us,” Penn said recently during an in-studio appearance on NFL Network. “We can’t wait to get back out there healthy. We’re ready to hit the football world with a storm.”
While new guys are coming, a few might head out. The Raiders have several unrestricted free agents. Penn wants to keep his guys around – he mentioned running back Latavius Murray by name -- though he has some ideas for McKenzie’s checklist.
The Raiders don’t need much with most key players under contract – the Raiders should be less active in free agency over past offseasons – but a few key components could put this team over the top.
“If we stick to Reggie’s plan, we’ll be great,” Penn said. “I know he’s going to have a great draft, add a couple little pieces here and there – maybe somebody in the secondary to help out a little bit.
"On offense, you could always use a weapon. Maybe we get another receiver to take (pressure off Michael Crabtree and Amari Cooper), but we have a good nucleus right now.”