Mark Barron in high demand for safety-starved NFL teams

The idea that Alabama safety Mark Barron could sneak into the top 10 of Thursday night's 2012 NFL Draft might surprise some people on the outside.

But those making decisions in the NFL are hardly shocked by the prospect.

"The instincts, the big-play ability, the toughness, the athletic ability -- he's a game-changer," one NFC executive said. "And he's the type of person that makes the guys around him better. Plus, he makes a lot of plays on his own. With some of these kids, you have to go through three or four games to see them make five plays. This guy makes five plays in one quarter. He can do anything you want him to."

Indeed, Barron was All-SEC three times, a first-team All-America as a senior, and was a starter for two national title teams during his four years in Tuscaloosa.

But his ascent, and the recent fascination with him, also has something to do with the changing face of safeties at the college level, which has shorted the supply of impact players coming into the pro game to a certain degree. Bottom line: A player like Barron -- a 6-foot-1, 218-pound thumper with range and versatility -- is increasingly rare.

The proliferation of the college spread has caused a bastardization of the position. Bigger safeties are now playing linebacker. More corners are necessary, stretching the amount of available athletes very thin. So inventory isn't quite what it used to be at a time in the NFL when freakishly athletic tight ends and multiple-formation football make having quality safeties more important than ever.

"(College coaches) want the 210-, 220-pound guys playing linebacker now, and so safeties are now the corners that might be a step less athletic than the ones on the edges," an AFC college scout said. "The big safeties are linebackers, the big linebackers are playing defensive end. The whole landscape has changed."

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As an NFC personnel director added, "They're not putting the great athletes at that position anymore; they'll have that guy do something else -- make him bigger and go to linebacker or play him on the other side of the ball. People used to take the high school running back and make him a safety, but now they're turning that guy into a rush end. There aren't enough of them."

And that is particularly true this year. Barron is considered the only truly elite prospect in this crop of safeties. Notre Dame's Harrison Smith might sneak in the end of the first round, but that's a result of the fact that there's another steep drop-off after him. One exec said his club has a mid-second-round grade on Smith and added he's "not a difference-maker." Another exec said his team views the former Irish captain as a late-second-round or third-round prospect.

The flipside of the argument on Barron is that taking a safety high bucks conventional wisdom, with the position serving as a sort of defensive counterpart to offensive guard.

But as an AFC personnel executive points out, "If you ask Kansas City if they'd take Eric Berry fifth overall again, I bet they'd do it. When you have a scheme-flexible safety, there are so many things you can do from a coverage standpoint. It basically tells you, 'We're not going to be limited.' "

The point is reinforced by the responsibility Barron had at Alabama to run the show in the secondary, the position group that head coach Nick Saban is most involved with.

"He has a lot of diversity as a player, in terms of being a safety, being a nickel linebacker, he's a good blitzer, you can do whatever you need to do with him on third down," Saban said. "He had a lot of maturity, a lot of respect, was a very good leader, teammates really responded to him. The guy really ran the entire secondary this year. I think that's something that has a value, especially when you play safety, with the kinds of adjustments you have to make in this day and age of multiple-formation football."

And the fact that Barron did it under Saban, with NFL-type responsibilities and calls, doesn't hurt either.

"Nick's special -- a special coach with a special system and a special way of teaching it," the AFC scout said. "He gets better players than everyone else. They get the best there, but also teach it better, and expect you to execute it like a pro. They're doing everything right there, so (Barron's had) A-plus coaching in an A-plus system. Mentally, he's like a pro already."

Add it all up -- the capacity to run the back end of a defense, the ability to cover tight ends and play in any scheme or look, and the clean reputation on and off the field -- and it's easy to see why Barron's name has seemed to get hot of late, but was always respected where it counts: in those draft rooms.

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At one point, it was hard to envision Barron getting past Dallas at No. 14. Now? It's becoming difficult to see him even getting that far.

"I think he's ready to play in the NFL," Saban said. "He's got a lot of experience here and we do a lot of the same stuff here that we did in the NFL, so he's been exposed to a lot of those types of coverages and adjustments and those types of things. Mark's very responsible and accountable to do things the right way, I think all those things enhance a guy's ability to have a smooth transition into the NFL and be a productive player early on."

And as we get closer and closer to Thursday, it's hard to find anyone who disagrees.

Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @AlbertBreer

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