Queried last week about the thinnest positions in this year's draft, a veteran and highly respected personnel executive identified fullback, center, safety and tight end as "definitely among" the most shallow talent pools.
So while it was somewhat surprising to see center Peter Konz of Wisconsin and Stanford tight end Coby Fleener still on the board at the end of Round 1 – two prospects ranked by most as the premier players at their respective positions – it wasn't altogether shocking. Fullback, of course, has gone the way of the dodo or the single wing in the NFL, and one might not be tabbed until Saturday.
But the rather average evaluation of the 2012 safety prospects didn't keep two players from the interior secondary, Mark Barron of Alabama (Tampa Bay, No. 7 overall) and Notre Dame's Harrison Smith (Minnesota, 29th), from being picked in the first round. In fact, there was just one more first-round cornerback, three, than there were safeties on Thursday night.
Not to diminish the talents of Barron and Smith, clearly the top two safeties on just about every team's draft board, but their selections probably had as much to do with the enhanced profile of the position as with their individual skills.
"It's definitely a hot position, with people throwing the ball so much," Smith allowed, after the Vikes traded up for a second choice late in the round to grab him.
Minnesota was a mess last season at safety, using five different starters and five staring combinations, during the season. In terms of performance at safety, more so than stability (or lack thereof), Tampa Bay wasn't far behind. And so the choices made pretty good sense.
The only catch: Both Smith and Barron are more "in the box," old-fashioned safeties, the kind that has slipped some in vogue around the NFL the past few years, as clubs concentrate on safeties with some cornerback coverage skills. Watch Barron on tape and he struggles a bit in coverage, despite terrific football smarts and awareness for the game. Smith was actually a linebacker for the Fighting Irish early in his career.
Granted, Barron finished with a dozen interceptions during a celebrated college career, but seven came in one season, and he notched just five over the past two years. All seven of Smith's career interceptions were in one season, 2010.
But even with the concentration on coverage, teams admire physical toughness, and Barron and Smith both bring that. Ditto for football acumen, a prerequisite for the safety position.
Said Barron late Thursday night: "You not only have to play well, but you have to know where everyone should be (lined up). It's a head game, too, right? I think teams take that into consideration and respect it."
Once little more than a first-round afterthought, the safety position is gaining a grudging, yet growing, respect. Sure, corners are always going to rate higher on the priority list, and rightly so. But Barron is the sixth safety chosen in the top 10 in the past 10 drafts, the third in the last six. There have now been four top seven safeties in seven seasons.
Twice in the past three drafts, three times in the last six, there were two or more safeties tabbed in the first round.
There is generally a run on safeties in the second and third rounds, in part because they are safer choices in those spots, and because they play so much on special teams, and that may be the case on Friday night. But the position, despite the contention that it is a modest talent pool this year, is slowly gaining respect.
Safety gaining respect in draft
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