ALAMEDA, Calif. -- The Oakland Raiders have, no doubt, rebuilt their defense. Again.
They’ve brought in veterans with hardware -- paging Justin Tuck and LaMarr Woodley -- and know how -- looking at you, Antonio Smith, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown -- while bringing back a future Hall of Famer in Charles Woodson. Plus, Oakland used the No. 5 overall pick to draft Khalil Mack.
And yet, the guy who may hold the key to the whole shebang is the same guy who is the last line, both literally and figuratively, of the defense itself -- strong safety Tyvon Branch.
He was the highest-paid player on Oakland’s roster a year ago, making more than $9.5 million, though he was lost for the season after injuring his lower right leg in the season’s second game, a 19-9 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team claimed all along it was an ankle injury while ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter reported it was a fractured fibula.
Now, Branch is recovered and slated to earn a relatively modest $4 million while carrying a cap number of $7.157 million, the second-highest on the team to new quarterback Matt Schaub’s $8 million cap number.
“It was difficult sitting out,” said Branch, who went down while blitzing Jaguars quarterback Chad Henne on a third-and-7 play in the first quarter. Branch was untouched as he collapsed after stepping from the dirt infield onto the grass at O.co Coliseum, the lone facility shared by an NFL team and a major league baseball club.
“I love the game. Like I tell you all the time, I love playing football. I had a lot of guys on the team help keep my spirits high. I stayed surrounded with positive guys like Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece. Those guys helped lift my spirits.”
Branch tried to come back late in the season before being shut down. As such, the sample size of the ultra-athletic Branch teaming with the savvy of free safety Woodson is a small one indeed.
Of course, they are looking forward to playing more than five quarters together this season.
“Anytime you get your guys back and get them back healthy, you feel better about your chances,” Woodson said. “It will be great for him, coming off the injury. You know he’s hungry, because when you miss time from this game you get a chance to reflect on a lot of things.
“Having him back and having him be hungry, as I know he is, is going to be great for the defense.”
And therein lays the potential rub. Because while Branch is the longest continuously tenured Raider on defense and, thus, knows what it means to be a Raider more than any of the additions, the new guys know how to win.
Since Branch was selected in the fourth round of the 2008 draft, the Raiders are a combined 34-62 (.352), while Tuck has two rings since 2007, Woodley has one in two Super Bowl appearances and Rogers and Brown have each been part of a Super Bowl team.
“The crazy thing about it is the mentality is not really different,” Branch said. “They had the same mentality we had; they just had a little more success with it. When you get guys like that, that have done it before, they might tell you a couple of tips and things, but everybody goes out there with the same mentality.
“Everybody wants to win games. It’s just [certain] guys have had more success than others.”
Sure, it’s early. The Raiders just completed voluntary OTAs and are in the midst of a three-day mandatory minicamp. But coach Dennis Allen, who cut his coaching teeth mentoring the secondary, likes what he’s seen from Branch thus far.
In fact, Allen said Branch does not appear to have lost a step from his pre-injury self.
“Tyvon, he’s the same Tyvon that we’ve had here,” Allen said. “He comes out to work every day, he competes every day and I’ve seen some good things from him, just from understanding the system and what we’re trying to get accomplished and learning.
“I think he’s gotten better on some technique issues that he needs to work to improve on. If he continues to work the way that he has, I would expect that we’d have a good player in him.”
Branch, meanwhile, is his own harshest critic, one that went stir crazy as he could only watch his teammates from mid-September on last year.
It’s almost as if the Raiders picked up a new starting strong safety in free agency.
“Watching from the sidelines, you see things in another perspective,” Branch said. “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 (with) guys actually seeing you play, I think that helped me a lot.”
The Raiders are counting on it.
“I go out there every game with the mentality of ‘Let’s win,’” he said. “That doesn’t change whether we’re 12-0 or 1-12. I’m going to go out there with the same mentality.
“Every team I’ve played on so far, I went into the season thinking, ‘The sky’s the limit for us.’”
So long as the sky does not fall on them. Again.