Gazing Into Crystal Ball: Strong Safeties

Battle-tested on an impressive college defense, Mark Barron is the unquestioned cream of the crop among safety prospects. But a polished midround prospect and small-school, late-round sleeper create some intrigue at strong safety throughout the draft.

Cream of the Crop

Mark Barron, Alabama

Ever since he strapped on a football helmet for the first time, Barron has been considered one of the top all-around players in the game. A player who is battled-tested vs. some of the elite college programs during his four seasons with the Crimson Tide, he is the unquestioned leader of one of the greatest defenses to play in the NCAA in recent memory.

Mark Barron
Jeffrey G. Pittenger/US Presswire
Despite playing most of his final season injured, Barron guided an Alabama unit that led the nation in rush defense (72.15 ypg), pass defense (111.46 ypg), total defense (183.62 ypg) and scoring defense (8.15 ppg). The Tide was the only one of 119 major colleges to hold their opponent under 80 yards per game rushing; the only one to allow under 130 yards passing, the only squad to allow less than 260 total yards; the only team to keep the oppositions' scoring average under 11 points and the only unit to record a pass efficiency defense under an 80 rating.

All of this was accomplished with their wounded leader keeping his teammates focused. Right after he accomplished his goal – leading the Tide to the national championship – Barron underwent surgery for a double sports hernia, preventing him from capping his college career with several other teammates at the 2012 Senior Bowl.

Looking back at his four seasons in Tuscaloosa, his complete body of work on the football field, the way he controlled the locker room and made sure his teammates approached every aspect of Alabama football as a business, Barron has little left to prove to NFL talent evaluators – except to prove that he is well on the way to recovering from injuries that few, if any, would have even dared to play with, much less at the level Barron put forward each and every game.

Compares to: Patrick Chung, New England – An aggressive form tackler who makes good adjustments to game situations and is very alert to blocking schemes working inside the box, Barron lacks sprinter's speed but has the second gear and burst to close and the lateral agility to redirect in an instant. He is very alert to play action, pump fakes and misdirection, reacting to keys quickly, doing a nice job of reading the quarterback's release to position himself under the ball to make the play. Barron could end up in Buffalo with the 10th pick, but if not a Bill, he won't make it past the trio of Cowboys, Eagles and Jets decision makers in the first round.

Best of the Rest

Antonio Allen, South Carolina

Dale Zanine/US Presswire

The unquestioned leader of the Yellow Jackets' defense, Allen is one of the premier safeties in the collegiate ranks. He has proven equally effective playing deep in zone coverage or inside the box as a run stuffer. With his ability to always be around the ball, opposing offensive coordinators game-plan with the intention of keeping the play away from this strong safety's territory, as he hits with authority and seems to always be in position to make the play.

Playing the "Spur" position, Allen offers a professional team a player who is smart and instinctive enough to make the calls and handle the assignments in the secondary. His quickness and ability to take proper angles allows him to close on the ball and string plays wide in run support.

For a player of his size, it is very impressive the way he can keep the plays in front of him, but it is mostly due to his quickness while maintaining body control. Used often on the safety blitz, he excelled, delivering 23 tackles behind the line of scrimmage in his last 23 games. He shows a good feel for the cutback lanes and has no problems taking down the runner once he locks on to the opponent.

Allen started 31 of 50 games at South Carolina, recording 198 tackles (117 solos), coming up with 3.5 sacks for minus-22 yards, 20 stops for losses of 69 yards and nine quarter-back pressures.

Compares to: Quin Glover, Houston – Allen has shown the vision to make plays with his back to the ball, doing a nice job of looking the pass in over his shoulder. He has the body control to keep tight on the receiver's hip in the short areas and keeps his feet under him throughout transition breaks and has a low, smooth pedal. He's become confident in his ability to ride up the receiver and use his arms to either deflect or catch the ball in flight. Look for him to be selected in the fourth-round range.

Super Sleeper

Jeremy Jones, Wayne State (Mich.)

Jeremy Jones
Wayne State Athletics
Jones plays with good aggression and hits with authority. He needs to avoid blockers on the move to be effective, as his size is a hindrance taking on linemen in run support, but somehow, he has the ability to slip blocks and make the play in front of him. He has the strength to take down ball carriers in pursuit and plays with good control, especially when handling the switch-offs in the zone.

He is a good worker who takes the extra hours to study film. Jones is not known as a punishing tackler, but he does get good position and takes proper angles to make the play. He does everything asked of him and has an excellent team-first attitude. He is looked up to and respected by his teammates.

You can see on film that he has a quick burst to close. When the ball is in flight, Jones shows urgency getting vertical to make plays on it at its high point, excelling as a ball thief. He has natural hands and, while he shows average timed speed, he has excellent acceleration to step in front of the receiver and combat for the ball in flight. His above-average plant agility and timing lets him close on the ball in a hurry.

The two-time All-American was also named the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year after picking off nine passes for 196 yards in returns and posting 6.5 sacks among his 13 tackles for losses and 106 overall tackles in 2011. In 46 career games, he's amassed 291 tackles (184 solos), gained 406 yards with three touchdowns among his 17 interceptions, deflected 23 other throws and posted 24 stops behind the line of scrimmage, including 8.5 sacks.

Compares to: Jim Leonhard, New York Jets – Jones is a natural hands catcher who fields the ball well. He will extend away from the body's frame to catch the pigskin and shows good hand/eye coordination. He maintains concentration vs. the ball in flight and his impressive tackles-for-loss figures prove that he is not timid in run support. Could he possibly be a Steelers find late in the draft? He looks like an ideal student for Pittsburgh defensive backs coach Carnell Lake to mold into a starter.

Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.

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