With the 2011 NFL season in the books, it's time to turn our eyes to the NFL draft, and the pre-draft evaluation process. Before and after the 2012 scouting combine, we'll be taking a closer look at the 50 draft-eligible players who may be the biggest NFL difference-makers when all is said and done.
We continue this year's series with Alabama safety Mark Barron. Barron comes stamped with the Nick Saban Seal of Defensive Freshness. Like most Alabama prospects, he arrives nearly NFL-ready because of Saban's complicated schemes and detail-oriented coaching.
He also comes with a reputation as a big hitter, and a reluctance to change."The way I've been taught to play the game, I hit hard," Barron said at the combine. "I guess I'll have to make some adjustments …I'm not sure if I will, because that's the way I was taught to play the game." Feel free to never change, kid. NFL headquarters is on Park Avenue in Manhattan. Ask at the desk for the commissioner's office. He will be waiting for you. The leather couch is comfortable.
Hard hits are just part of Barron's well-rounded game, which is why he is unanimously considered the best safety in the draft class, and many teams are willing to invest a mid-to-high first-round pick at a position where abundant talent is usually available later.
Pros: As stated above, Barron knows what he is doing. He lined up as both a free and strong safety at Alabama, alone in deep coverage and in Cover-2, in the box as a blitzer, short-zone defender, and force defender, and anywhere else a safety can find himself. Barron adjusted to sudden assignment changes because of defensive audibles and/or formation shifts; it was not unusual to see him start at deep safety, then race to the line to blitz after offensive motion. He should have no trouble mastering a complex defense.
Barron excels at playing the run by attacking downhill toward the line of scrimmage. When a ball carrier commits to a hole, Barron explodes to meet him for a short gain. Some safeties overrun plays when doing this, but Barron consistently times his approach and takes the right angle. At 225 pounds, Barron delivers a bigger blow than he receives.
In coverage, Barron is assignment-sound and reads plays very well. He follows the quarterback's eyes and is effective at cherry picking because he gets a jump on the ball and will undercut the receiver. He has good hands and can make the leaping catch.
Barron is a very sure tackler who wraps and delivers a pop. Despite the quotes above, he is a hard hitter but not really a head hunter.
Cons: Barron is not lightning quick, and he has trouble in man coverage against better tight ends and slot receivers. He is sometimes a split-second late reacting in underneath zones, allowing completions that he could have broken up if he were more sudden.
Barron was arrested for obstruction of justice in March of 2011 after an incident involving his cousin borrowing his car at a nightclub and causing a wreck on Interstate 10. The cousin was later arrested on drug charges. We all have cousins like that, and we should probably just let them suffer the consequences of their actions, lest their idiocy wind up in our scouting reports.
Conclusion: The man coverage liability limits Barron's long-term potential. He will never develop into the Troy Polamalu-Ed Reed class of safeties. There is a whole class of excellent, productive defenders just below Polamalu and Reed, however, and Barron should join that group sooner than later. Drop him deep, and you will get some interceptions and dependable support coverage. Stick him in the box and he will beef up the run defense. Use him in a Giants-style "heavy nickel" defense with three safeties, and he can provide mistake-free coverage in short zones while providing a potential blitz weapon.
The pre-draft scuttlebutt has the Dallas Cowboys eager to select Barron. The Cowboys also selected big, hard-hitting safety Roy Williams back in 2002. Barron is better than Williams. That is hardly faint praise: Williams played in five Pro Bowls, though the last few were reputation selections. Barron provides all the hits, better pass coverage, and despite his combine remarks, a lower probability of having an illegal tackle named in his honor.
NFL Comparison: Adrian Wilson, Arizona Cardinals
More Shutdown 50:
#20: Cordy Glenn, OL, Georgia | #21: Riley Reiff, OT, Iowa | #22: Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford | #23: Devon Still, DT, Penn State | #24: Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama | #25: Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State| #26: Nick Perry, DE, USC | #27: Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska | #28: Dontari Poe, DT/DE, Memphis | #29: Whitney Mercilus, OLB/DE, Illinois | #30: Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson| #31, Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson| #32: Jonathan Martin, OT, Stanford| #33: Bobby Massie, OT, Mississippi| #34: Andre Branch, DE/OLB, Clemson | #35: Dont'a Hightower, ILB, Alabama | #36: Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse| #37: Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech | #38: Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall| #39: Doug Martin, RB, Boise State | #40 : Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers| #41: Zach Brown, OLB, North Carolina| #42: Lavonte David, OLB, Nebraska| #43: Jared Crick, DE/DT, Nebraska| #44: Alshon Jeffrey, WR, South Carolina | #45: Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State| #46: Orson Charles, TE, Georgia| #47: Lamar Miller, RB, Miami| #48: Shea McClellin, OLB/DE, Boise State| #49: Rueben Randle, WR, LSU | #50: Jonathan Massaqoui, OLB/DE, Troy