The Tale of Marquez Branson

There are players who come into the NFL, seemingly immediately ready to take on the challenges of the game. You may find them in the 1st round or the 7th - you may even find them in the ranks of the undrafted college free agents. Regardless of where they are found, they all have one thing in common - they're very, very rare. Only a gifted few players are ready to contribute immediately. Most NFL teams will give even 1st round prospects 2 full training camps before even considering how well they might be working out for the team. The NFL game is bigger, faster, stronger and a lot more complex, and it takes most people time to figure it out. One of those players is Marquez Branson.

Not a great route runner...Gives good effort but just an average blocker...Isn't real elusive...Intelligence has been questioned...Did not face elite competition. (NFL.com)

If you just look at the above analysis from nfl.com, you have to wonder what this guy is doing taking up valuable space on the practice squad. That's one of the things that makes Marquez Branson such an interesting player. Measured at the Combine at 6'1 and 241 lb, Branson is one of those individuals who has continued to grow later in his life than most. Currently measured at 6'3 and 248 lb, he's one of the players that Josh McDaniels has chosen (along with Chris Baker) to mention publicly as an example of those lesser known from whom good things are expected as the team moves into the 2010 OTAs that will prepare the squad for training camp. One year ago, he was an afterthought to most fans, just one more on a list of undrafted college free agents. It wasn't a list that saw good things ahead in the NFL for the majority of names that were on it. These were the folks holding on to their NFL careers with fingernails and super glue. Every now and then, some of these players work out. There was a guy named Rod Smith, a while back, who epitomizes that possibility.

Good hands and ball skills...Excellent leaping ability...Can separate and stretch the field vertically...Tough and can take a hit...Physical and aggressive...Extremely versatile...Productive. (NFL.com)

These attributes, too, are taken from nfl.com. Appropriately, Branson has taken his route to the NFL more slowly than most. He attended Starkville High School in Starkville, Miss., where he grew up, and where he was a two-time all-state selection. At Starkville High School in Starkville MS, Branson caught 60 passes for six touchdowns. Branson then decided to take two years and attend community college at East Mississippi CC. For his junior year he transferred to Central Arkansas University where he and Senior Bowl quarterback Nathan Brown quickly became an effective tandem. Marquez, over the next two years, totaled 82 career receptions for 1,236 yards (15.1 avg.) with 18 touchdowns at Central Arkansas. During his junior year, he totaled 37 catches for 499 yards (13.5 avg.) with seven touchdowns in 11 games at Central Arkansas, earning all-conference accolades and leading all FCS tight ends in both receptions and touchdown catches in 2008. He surpassed those totals in his senior year, earning All-Southland Conference recognition in 2008 by posting 45 catches for 737 yards (16.4 avg.) with 11 touchdowns in 12 games. As a result of their combined efforts, Branson and Brown were only the third and fourth players for the CAU Bears to ever be invited to Combine.

Branson's showing at Combine was neither stellar nor terrible -

  • 40 Yard Dash : 4.71 seconds
  • Bench Press : 22.0 reps
  • Vertical Jump : 35.0 inches
  • Broad Jump : 109.0 inches

Is a gifted athlete with good body control and burst out of his stance. Displays the ability to get down the field and separate in and out of his breaks. (NFL.com)

Branson ran even better at the UCA Pro Day than he did at Combine, with times of 4.55, 4.67 and 4.66. He also posted a 36" vertical, a 4.40 short shuttle and a 7.29 3-cone. Despite this, he wasn't drafted. He was considered a 'tweener' for the NFL, lacking the blocking or rushing skills to make him into a fullback, but too light for a TE and too big for a WR. Denver saw something in the young man that they liked, however, and they took a chance on him, bringing him in as an undrafted college free agent and moving him to the practice squad. It was a gamble that seems to be paying off. While you hear the term quite a lot, he may become one of the very, very few players in the league who will become a true H-back. A light, 90% receiving guy who is faster than the nickel LB, bigger than the cornerback is used to and who's tough and fast enough to push the safety out of his safe zone. There's Dallas Clark and then there's....maybe Aaron Hernandez?

Like Richard Quinn, college wasn't the first time that Branson had caught the ball. 60 receptions and 6 TDs aren't a bad start for a high school tight end. Jerry Rice ran a 4.6 time in the 40, so there's nothing wrong with being around there at your pro day (Rice had a much faster top end speed than most players in the NFL, which along with a killer work ethic made him brutally tough to cover. Branson doesn't have that top end speed, but he's still a talent. A 36 inch vertical for a TE is very respectable. But, where do you play him?

Negatives: May have to make the transition to H-back or fullback at the next level due to his lack of preferred size and strength. Has no experience as a traditional fullback. Good effort, but only marginal overall strength as a blocker. Level of competition a concern. May struggle with a complicated playbook. nfl.com

There's a question that most Broncos fans are looking forward to getting some answers on in 2010. It would be great to have Spencer Larsen freed to play more ILB, but not at the price of a drop-off in blocking skills. People like TJ "El Duderino" Johnson is convinced that Josh McDaniels is moving to more of a spread option formation, which could show Branson's abilities off to their best extent. I'll admit to being less convinced of that one specifically, but it's not really important which form it takes - like every year, the 2010 Broncos' offense will be showing off some changing and challenging variations over the next year. Branson - and Richard Quinn, for that matter - will be a part of that. With a full year under their belt, the Denver coaching staff has some additional ideas on ways to torment opposing coordinators. Finding out what those will be should be one of the pleasures of the season.

Can take a shot and maintain possession. Good speed to challenge the seam. Surprisingly physical at the point of attack as a run blocker. Gets a good initial pop and will battle for position. (NFL.com)

Notice in the above list that 'Surprisingly physical at the point of attack as a run blocker' contradicts the former 'marginal strength as a blocker'. What's up with that? It's simple - the notes on these players are maintained over time. If Branson, for example, might have shown a problem blocking on a certain day at the beginning of his junior year but showed big-time improvement on the next occasion that scout saw him, that's the kind of thing that you'll see reflected in the notes. It's confusing at first, but it's a good thing to see - it shows that the player is improving, changing his approach or being 'coached up' as he goes through college. It's an indication that he's an improver, a worker, a guy who won't let something continue to hamper his game. Those are often the players that you will find help for your team from, even if it's 'just' rotational or depth help. One of the senior members has pointed out several times that a team is often as good as their worst scrub. Given what kinds of player groupings may evolve over the course of a season, it's a fair point.

One of the things that I like about where McDaniels is going with this team is that he's willing to look at a football player who may not fit every part of those thorough position manuals that he's written for all the slots, and give him a shot. He's thought through exactly what he does and doesn't want, but he's also smart enough to know that you can't have too many Spencer Larsen's, too many Mario Haggans on your team. I give the coach credit even on a tough one - it wasn't that he didn't give Peyton Hillis a shot. Peyton didn't do well with the ones that he got, and he was still traded to a good situation. Smartfans.com's Ted Bartlett noted that he's going to be at his best in a WCO, and that's what his new team is reputed to be about to run. Actually, McDaniels has gone out of his way to work on getting a guy to a team that he wants to be with, and that happened with Cutler, Scheffler and Marshall as well. It's a class way to handle a no-win situation.

Very athletic...Good bulk...Long arms and big hands...Above average speed and quickness (NFL.com)

Marquez Branson isn't a blocking TE. He may not even be as much of a two-way TE as you'd like - at least, not yet. He won't stop unless he gets there, as shown by the contradiction in his scouting report above. He's a rarity, a guy with a linebacker's build and a WR's hands. He's the kind of guy that somehow you almost have to root for, the kind that you want several of on your team because you know that day in and day out, you'll tend to get a quick smile, hard work and his best, all-out effort. Like Rod Smith, he'll approach each day with that question in his heart - "Is that nameplate still gonna be on my locker?" He'll go out and try and earn it every single day, too. He's the kind of player that I always want to see, to talk about, to root for. He's a reflection of that piece that you find in everyman, a guy struggling to keep his head above water, one who isn't complaining and who just isn't going to quit. He isn't asking for anything except what he's earned. He's just fighting for his shot, and he's not going to give it up. That's not just a player, either.

That's a man. 

Just for a moment, sit back and consider the amount of press that former Florida tight end Aaron Hernandez has been accumulating this week in New England. One of Tim Tebow's favorite targets in previous seasons, Hernandez has been drafted by the NE Patriots who are hopeful that Hernandez will provide the same for Tom Brady. He might, too - but let's look at the differences and similarities between Hernandez and Branson. Hernandez, according to Kiper:

Aaron Hernandez

I'm familiar with the off-the-field questions that surround Hernandez, and they certainly played a role in his presence as a possible impact player from the draft's third day, as opposed to the first, but if the Patriots get Hernandez focused on the field and integrated into their offense, they're getting a steal. With Rob Gronkowski and Jermaine Greshamsidelined, Hernandez was the best tight end in college football last season, and by far Tim Tebow's favorite target. He could become a favorite target for Tom Brady, as a 250-pound player who you could mistake for a good wideout.

Hernandez catches the ball away from his body, is a threat to run with it after he does, and what you lose from him in blocking, he makes up for as a matchup nightmare as a likely H-back. The deep threats for Brady certainly aren't what they were a few years ago, and Hernandez and Gronkowski could be used creatively both as targets, and -- when well-covered -- as decoys to open up deep lanes for Randy Moss that his diminished speed won't do by itself.

Branson also catches the ball away from his body, is a threat to run with it after he does, and what you lose from him in blocking, he makes up for as a matchup nightmare as a likely (modern-style) H-back. The deep threats for Denver are better than what they were a few years ago, and Branson, Thomas and Decker could be used creatively both as targets, and -- when well-covered -- as decoys to open up deep lanes for Eddie Royal or Kenny McKinley that their speed won't do by itself.

I think that Aaron Hernandez is a fine young TE and expect that he should do well for the Pats - the same is true for Gronkowski. The fact is, those things that are intriguing about Hernandez are equally true of Branson and the Broncos (Catchy title, that. They need a good Top 40 hit and they're on their way). In Branson, Denver is getting what amounts to an extra draft pick in an area where they could use some bolstering. D. Thomas and Eric Decker were two of my top three 'Oh, please' receivers. Decker reminds me of Eddie Mac in some of the best ways - so, by the way, did Jordan Shipley, minus the injuries. Tough players, fast enough, willing to go over the middle, players who get to the NFL as much on guts as natural talent. Both talent and guts are nice, and in the case of Decker, that's what Denver will have. D. Thomas's production in college was enough to make anyone sit up and take notice, and with Branson added to the list, Denver suddenly has a nice group of young men who can run out and catch the ball.

I'm a big fan of the running game. I like to see it used in a wide variety of ways, and I know that you have to have a good one to make your passing attack optimal. Denver took a series of steps to do that this offseason - Zane Beadles, JD Walton, and Eric Olsen to add to Seth Olsen, Chris Kuper, Harris and Clady, Baptiste and Matt McChesney make a nice start in front of KM, C. Buckhalter, JJ Arrington, Chris Brown and Toney Baker, as well as Lance Ball and Bruce Hall. Suddenly, Denver has the beginnings of a solid rushing game, more diverse receivers and a lot of new blood at the offensive line. It might not be a quick fix, but it's likely to be an effective one.

Who will step up on the line, as a receiver or rushing the ball?  No one can say, yet. But don't be surprised for a moment if the name Marquez Branson turns out to be one of the ones that gets called after yet another play pulls in the 1st down. Player development is a beautiful thing. It makes me wonder who else on this list is going to turn a few heads before the season is over. Suddenly, the receiving game looks more interesting than it has in a few seasons.

Who's going to be next?

Originally posted at MHR

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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