ALAMEDA -- Strong safety Tyvon Branch is back doing the thing he loves most after spending last season chasing a vision that never materialized.

Branch suffered an ankle injury in the Raiders second game and worked feverishly to return to the field, where he is regarded as the defensive leader.

"I thought I was going to be able to play the last couple of weeks," Branch said Monday. "But just getting out there, I knew I couldn't go out there and perform at the level I wanted to. And coach saw that when I got back. He told me to shut it down."

Instead, Branch's long, grueling rehab won't pay dividends until this season.

At least he now knows that the hard part is over. He cleared a major hurdle two weeks ago when he participated in a full-team practice for the first time since his injury in mid-September.

"I really didn't know I was all the way back until OTAs, just getting back on the field," Branch said. "There's nothing you can do to simulate football."

Once Branch felt comfortable on the field, he shifted his focus toward getting acclimated to a slew of new faces.

It's likely that six of the 11 starters on defense will be new this season. Also, Branch got in only two games with returners Charles Woodson, Kevin Burnett, DJ Hayden, Nick Roach, Sio Moore and Pat Sims.

So far, Branch said he likes what he sees. In fact, he said this defense has the makings to be one of the best he has played for in his seven NFL seasons.

"There's a lot of winners on our defense, a lot of guys that have had a lot of success. Guys like (Justin) Tuck and (LaMarr) Woodley. There's a lot of great defensive players out there."

In particular, Branch said he is excited about the prospect of playing alongside Woodson for a whole season.

Woodson's experience and playmaking ability makes life easier on Branch because, as Branch said, that's one fewer player he has to worry about keeping tabs on from down to down.

"We both play very similar," Branch said. "He's more of a ball hawk than I am but I'm more of a hitter than he is, so we balance each other out. We do things differently but we're very versatile."

Follow Steve Corkran on Twitter at twitter.com/CorkOnTheNFL.