- Paul Kuharsky, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Tennessee Titans might be looking for help at safety early in the draft. Could an injury that kept a prime prospect out of the combine help that prospect slip to the Titans at No. 20?
Alabama safety Mark Barron looks to be a player who could solve a big issue in Tennessee. He’s a big (6-foot-1, 213 pounds), rangy playmaker who should be an opening day starter. He played both free and strong safety for Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban.
“Big safety, athletic, smart, rare size and frame,” a scout told me at the combine. “Runs the show in a difficult defense to absorb. Very good kid. No issues. Coaches love him and trust him. Immediate starter wherever he goes. Injury is the only way he is available at 20.”
Barron underwent double sports hernia surgery after the Crimson Tide won the national championship, so he’s still in a rehab stage and didn’t work out at the combine.
“I feel good,” he said. “As far as me working out, I’m just doing rehab. I feel good, I feel like I can do whatever I need to do. I just haven’t been cleared to do certain things. That’s where I’m at right now ...
“I don’t have an exact time for when I’ll be 100 percent but I plan on working out late March … From what I’ve heard, it’s not going to really affect anything as far as where I get drafted.”
ESPN’s resident physical therapist Stephania Bell said once Barron is fully healed from the sports hernias, he won’t have a health issue.
Titans GM Ruston Webster said he doesn’t think an injury that won’t be a concern down the road generally has much impact on the draft position of a player.
“People are going to draft off what they see on film,” he said. “… Mark Barron is a big, tough, instinctive safety. He’s got size, he can play in the box and he can play deep.”
Like guards, safeties are generally not regarded as first-round priorities. Jeremy Mills of ESPN Stats & Information said 4.4 percent of first-round picks have been used on safeties over the past 10 years. Nearly three times as many first-round picks have been used on corners in that time frame.
I understand that draft strategy when there isn’t much talent there, as the case was last year. Rahim Moore was the first safety off the board in 2011, 13 picks into the second round to Denver. There wasn't a safety selected in the first round in 2009, either.
But a chance to draft a difference-making safety should be regarded the same as one at any other position. Maybe it should be viewed as an even bigger opportunity, because it's rarer.
“I feel like it’s very hard for us safeties to get in the first round, so I think that shows you that the position of safety is being undervalued,” Barron said. “… If a guy’s a good player, then he’s just a good player. I don’t see why, position-wise, if you have a better player that’s a safety and then you have a corner that might not be a better football player, I don’t see a reason why the corner should go ahead of the safety.
“I’ve seen it happen. I just don’t understand it but that’s not my position to pick.”
When the Titans drafted Texas safety Michael Griffin 19th overall in 2007, they were oddly wary of how the move would be regarded. They went on an extensive, pointless charade of calling him a cornerback. After they wasted a lot of time with him at corner, he started the seventh game of his rookie season -- at safety.
Now he’s heading for free agency. The Titans would be wise to attempt to upgrade rather than retain him, as he’s far too inconsistent, missing tackles at key times and playing his best only when those around him are doing the same. I want my safeties to be steady.
The Titans' GM-turned-president, Mike Reinfeldt, was a successful NFL safety. Griffin was Tennessee’s first first-round pick with Reinfeldt at the helm. Webster is now the GM who will have the strong hand in making the draft-day calls, and the Titans shouldn’t be wary of taking a safety in the first round again if Barron is there -- provided they haven't restocked in free agency.
The importance of a player like him is on the rise.
“He can cover tight ends,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said of Barron. “I need him to cover Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez and he can do that.”
Not all analysts are in love with the Alabama safety, however.
“I think there is a good chance there will be no safeties that get drafted in the first round,” said Russ Lande, a former scout who now is a draft analyst for The Sporting News and GM Jr. “The reality is Barron is a good football player, but he’s not a premier athlete and there are teams that definitely have questions about his ability to be effective in deep pass coverage.
“Although I think he’s a good player who’s going to be a solid starter, I think there is a real likelihood he will be there at 20, that he will even be there in the second round.”
One of the things most teams do like about Barron is his experience at Alabama. He was the glue of a complex defense. The Titans' D will likely be more straightforward, but they sure could use a guy like that.
The team that drafts Barron will be expecting an intelligent player who can be plugged in, learn quickly and reliably play a scheme.
“We played in a very difficult defense, first of all,” Barron said. “We did a lot of different schemes. As far as communicating, I had a lot to do with that on the back end. I feel like sometimes I brought some energy with the hits that I made and things of that nature. So, I did a lot of different things.”