Branch returns to practice for Raiders

Oakland Raiders safety Tyvon Branch practiced for the first time

this week, an encouraging turn for a struggling secondary sorely

lacking depth.

Branch, who has missed only one start since a shoulder injury

sidelined him for the final eight games of his rookie season in

2008, was limited in Friday’s workout after being sidelined by neck

and ankle injuries.

That’s still considerable progress, and the veteran strong

safety is cautiously optimistic he’ll play in Oakland’s final home

game of the season Sunday against Kansas City.

”It’s feeling good, feeling better,” Branch said. ”It’s one

of those things where you just hope it feels great by the time the

game comes around. I want to play but that’s coach’s

decision.”

Branch has led the Raiders in tackles the past two seasons and

is second this year behind linebacker Philip Wheeler. He signed a

four-year contract in the offseason worth a reported $26.6 million

after initially being hit with the franchise player tag.

Even if Branch is unable to play, the Raiders aren’t likely to

move Michael Huff from his cornerback spot.

Huff began the season as Oakland’s starting free safety but was

moved to cornerback after injuries to starters Ron Bartell and

Shawntae Spencer, neither of whom are on the team’s active roster

anymore.

Mike Mitchell, who started on Nov. 18 when Branch’s streak of 57

consecutive games ended due to a neck injury, will play if Branch

is unable to.

The news wasn’t as promising for Richard Seymour. The seven-time

Pro Bowl defensive tackle has not played since injuring his

hamstring on Nov. 4 and did not practice Friday after aggravating

the same injury a day earlier.

Branch and Seymour are listed as questionable.

”Our plan is to work both of those guys out before the game and

see where they’re at,” coach Dennis Allen said. ”We’ll make our

decision on game day.”

Desmond Bryant has started for Oakland while Seymour has been

out. Rookie Christo Bilukidi, a sixth-round draft pick from Georgia

State, has also seen his playing time increase over the past month

and will split reps with Bryant if Seymour is out.

”From where he came from … he’s made a lot of improvement,”

Allen said. ”Obviously, he’s played a little bit more than we

really would have anticipated but that’s been good for him. It’ll

be good for him moving forward.”

The Raiders need all the healthy bodies they can get. The

defense is already minus four starters from the opening day lineup,

including middle linebacker Rolando McClain, who returned this week

following a two-game team suspension. McClain has been practicing

with Oakland’s second-team defense while Omar Gaither takes reps

with the starters.

Oakland has dropped six straight and is trying to avoid losing

11 or more games for the eighth time in the last 10 years.

Note: The Raiders announced the game has been sold out and will

be televised locally. Oakland has sold out 15 of its last 16

games.

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