Former second-round draft pick Alan Branch celebrates one of his two sacks last weekend, the first sacks of his three-year career.
Not once did Alan Branch think he could be released.
Sure, he had done little in his two seasons as a Cardinal, playing in just 15 of a possible 31 games (including playoffs). He sat all but four games in 2008, irritating coaches when he couldn't control his weight. His production wasn't good for any draft pick, much less one drafted in the early second round (with the Cards giving up a fourth-round pick just to move up to nab him).
But he wasn't going anywhere.
"It seemed like everyone was more worried than I was," said Branch, who recorded the first two sacks of his career last weekend against the Giants. "I know how good I am. Obviously no one else thought I was that good because they thought I'd be cut. But not for a second did I think I'd be cut. I knew if I came in under weight and in shape, (the organization would) have no other reason to be mad at me because I know I have played well."
Branch may be right. Coach Ken Whisenhunt acknowledged "I don't know if we were ever close to giving up on Alan Branch." Instead, Branch's situation may be the perfect example of the internal battle teams face all the time with draft picks: How long should a team wait?
It's rarely a black-and-white issue. With high draft picks, money is involved, as are higher expectations than a second-day choice. There's always the possibility the player would be more successful in a different position or different scheme.
And it's always possible the player was just never going to make it, a bust from the beginning. At some point, a team has to decide it's given the player enough time to develop.
"When you draft a guy, you don't have those thoughts in mind, unless you're talking the quarterback position," general manager Rod Graves said. "But you'd like to see an immediate return on all of your draft choices. We all know some players need more time and sometimes you can afford to give players more time. In Alan's case, we had time and I am glad we were able to provide that to him."
The Cardinals have had to sort through all kinds of evaluations over the years. First-round choice Wendell Bryant hung around from 2002 to training camp of 2005, when the defensive tackle's lack of production (and off-field problems) finally forced the Cards to get rid of him. Third-rounders DT Darwin Walker (2000) and LB Buster Davis (2007) didn't even make it out of training camp.
But most players are in more of a grey area. Tackle Levi Brown (fifth overall pick) and safety Antrel Rolle (eighth) haven't necessarily reached what was expected given their draft status. But Rolle switched positions in his third year and seems to be finally starting to shine in his fifth season, while Brown, even without star status, has started 33 of 38 possible regular-season games – including 22 in a row.
Former first-rounder Calvin Pace went five seasons before blossoming once he was moved from defensive end to linebacker. Once he broke out in 2007, Pace used the season to reach a huge free-agent deal with the Jets.
Teams have less to lose from a lower pick. Guard Reggie Wells, a sixth-round pick in 2003, made his way into the starting lineup by his second season. Had he not played well enough to do so, his status likely would have left him on the fringe of the roster.
"When you start thinking about things that are going on upstairs you lose track of what is really important and what will make you ultimately the player you want to be," Wells said. "You have enough to worry about when you are in that situation, trying to establish yourself and trying to take somebody's position that may have been there for a long time."
Branch said there are many variables between the guy who sat most of 2008 and who has emerged in 2009. He said he played with a high ankle sprain most of last season. He's being used at defensive end for the first time and less at nose tackle, a position switch he preferred. And he has met his weight, which was important to the coaches.
"Our frustration level was higher at times because we always thought he could play like he is playing now," Whisenhunt said. "You always would like to see it earlier in their career because of where we drafted him, but I can't say now I am disappointed at all."
Branch insisted he expects more from himself than anyone else, which drives him.
"I expect to be a great player in this league and a starter and eventually make some Pro Bowls, because I know how good I am," he said.
The Cardinals weren't always as sure. But with Branch's raw skills, they were willing to wait and see.
"There are certain things you have to bet on," Graves said. "Size, athletic ability, intelligence, effort. Alan had demonstrated those things. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose when guys transition from a college environment to a pro environment. Some guys don't mature as fast as others.
"In Alan's case, I think we are seeing him turn the corner. I think he's finding football is important to him and he's able to have success in the game when he is in the best shape and giving his best effort."
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