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Branch trying to fit into revamped D

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ALAMEDA, Calif. (AP) - Tyvon Branch has gone from being one of the most experienced members of the Oakland Raiders defense to one of the unproven ones after missing almost an entire season with an injury.

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An injection of tested veterans with Super Bowl experience led to the change a year after Branch was one of just two returning defensive starters.

Branch went down with a broken leg in the second game of the season in 2013 and never returned, leaving a big void on a thin defense that was exposed throughout the year.

Branch is once again healthy this offseason and trying to fit into a revamped defense that was overhauled in free agency.

''We have guys at every position that have had a lot of success in this league,'' Branch said Monday. ''So, the more leaders you can get the better, obviously.''

Branch's absence forced Brandian Ross to take a starting role last season and contributed to Oakland allowing the second-most points per game (28.3) in franchise history while staggering to a second straight four-win season.

Branch hoped to return late last season but was not fully recovered so the team didn't rush him back.

''It was difficult sitting out,'' he said. ''I love the game. I tell you all the time, I love playing football. I got a lot of the guys on the team to help keep my spirits high.''

Now Branch gets a chance to show he can be an impact player. He showed flashes of that since entering the NFL in 2008, but has yet to generate the game-changing plays the Raiders believe he is capable of from his strong safety spot.

''It will be great for him coming off the injury,'' fellow safety Charles Woodson said. ''You know he's hungry. You miss time from this game, you get a chance to reflect on a lot of things. Having him back, having him be hungry, as I know he is, will be great for our defense.''

Despite having the size and speed that could make him a top safety, Branch has struggled to make big plays in the NFL. He has just four interceptions, seven sacks, 24 tackles for loss, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries in 72 career games.

But he was usually a sure tackler and his presence will allow Woodson to roam the field more than he did a year ago when he spent most of his time in the deep middle of the field to cover any mistakes made in front of him.

''Any time you lose a player of that caliber, it hurts you, and it handcuffs you a little bit,'' coach Dennis Allen said. ''I think we've addressed a lot of our needs on the football team. We've got more depth, where now we can do a few more things.''

Branch is one of the few players drafted by late owner Al Davis who is being counted on as a foundation piece in the rebuilding effort by Allen and general manager Reggie McKenzie.

Branch is one of the longest-tenured Raiders non-specialists, arriving in 2008 along with running backs Darren McFadden and Marcel Reece.

But he has never been part of a team that posted a winning record or made the playoffs and he lacks the winning experience of most of the newcomers added on defense this offseason.

McKenzie signed defensive linemen Justin Tuck, LaMarr Woodley and Antonio Smith and cornerbacks Tarell Brown and Carlos Rogers, giving the defense five potential new starters who all have played in the Super Bowl.

''There's a lot of winners on our defense, a lot of guys that have had a lot of success,'' Branch said. ''There's a lot of great defensive players out there. One of the most talented defenses. I can say that.''

NOTES: CB DJ Hayden (right ankle) remains sidelined and might not return before training camp next month. ... WR James Jones (hamstring) did not practice and DE Justin Tuck was not in attendance. ... RB Darren McFadden got work as a kick returner in practice.

---

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

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