Raiders veteran additions get headlines, but key veteran leader was already here

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Raiders spent their free agency cap money very carefully, choosing to give out reasonable contracts to a lot of good players rather than make a big splash on one or two guys like some other teams did. But as it turns out, that big-splash player may have been on the team this whole time.

We all saw what happened to the Raiders defense last year, a season that started off with such promise. The team lost their last six games and eight of their last ten after having starting the season 3-4. Obviously the team's cap situation had a lot to do with the lack of depth and overall talent, but one factor that cannot be ignored is the fact that Tyvon Branch suffered a broken leg in Week 2 against the Jaguars and never returned to duty.

Branch is the only member of the defense whom the team rewarded with a long-term contract investment, and he has for the last few years been recognized as the Raiders' best defensive player. He was intended to be the cornerstone of the Raider defense and without him, the team was forced to play Brandian Ross.

That turned out to be a bad idea. Pro Football Focus graded Ross as the Raiders' worst defensive back, and in the Eagles game alone Ross was burned 9 times for catches, 146 yards and four touchdowns. That is inexcusable for any safety, even one pressed into game action. Ross eventually turned out to be the second-worst safety in the entire NFL.

While the Raiders have added a ton of veteran leadership to the team this offseason, it is Branch's presence and leadership which could be the key for the Raiders. When asked if the leadership aspect of his game has changed coming into this season, Branch remarked during a recent media interview, "No, that doesn’t change for me. I think that when I step out on that field, I always feel like a leader."

But Branch is welcoming the additional leadership on the team. "We have guys at every position that has had a lot of success in this league. The more leaders you can get, the better, obviously." he says.

The talented safety did not let his time on the injured list go to waste, however. Regarding his time not on the field, Branch stated, "Watching from the sidelines, you see things in another perspective. If I could play the game from the sidelines, I think I’d have a lot more plays under my belt. I think it helped my leadership role. Being able to lead from the sideline and not being out there and guys actually seeing you play, I think that helped me a lot."

It is almost scary to think how good Tyvon Branch can be this year, fully healthy and a vocal leader playing behind a defensive line that should be very effective, with a year of sitting and watching games to fully master Jason Tarver's defensive scheme.

Branch has already had enormous success in previous Raider defenses which were by no means effective, averaging 108 tackles and four pass breakups per full season in his career. His impact on games cannot and should not be understated. The Raiders had a fine offseason and signed a number of good defensive players while drafting even more, but in the end I suspect it will be Tyvon Branch who will tie everything together for the Raiders to have success this year.
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