Now that we've listed our "honorable mentions" for the best Oakland Raiders draft picks since the 1970 merger, let's start our countdown of the Top 5 best draftees with receiver Cliff Branch checking in at No. 5…
Cliff Branch (Colorado, fourth round, No. 98 overall, 1972)
Of those listed on my Top 5, Branch is the only Raiders player not enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, though many see Branch just as deserving of a bust and yellow jacket as his contemporary Lynn Swann.
Branch may have been overshadowed earlier in his career by Canton-bound Fred Biletnikoff in Oakland but the speedy Branch was the epitome of Al Davis' vertical passing game. After Branch retired following the 1985 season, Davis spent the last quarter of his life searching for the next Cliff Branch to stretch the field and keep defenses honest.
All Branch did was average 17.3 yards per catch in his career, catching 501 passes for 8,685 yards and 67 touchdowns, including an NFL record 99-yarder from Jim Plunkett at Washington in 1983.
Branch, a four-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro who led the NFL with 1,092 receiving yards and 13 touchdown receptions in 1974, is also one of just six players to have been on all three Raiders Super Bowl title teams. The others: center Dave Dalby, right tackle Henry Lawrence, reserve offensive lineman Steve Sylvester and Hall of Famers Ted Hendricks, the versatile linebacker, and game-changing punter Ray Guy.
Yes, Branch was fast. He was a track star who kept in shape in the offseasons by playing tennis with strong safety George Atkinson. But Branch was also a football player, one whose 12 touchdown receptions led the league in 1976 as he also averaged a mind-boggling 24.2 yards per catch.
And in those three Super Bowl wins, Branch caught a combined 14 passes for 181 yards and three touchdowns.
As a fourth-rounder, the Raiders got a lot of value out of the pick. Three rings worth, you could say.