Buccaneers vs. Patriots: Mark Barron emerges as playmaker

Winslow Townson

Mark Barron may be the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' most improved player.

When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to trade back in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, no one really expected them to target Alabama safety Mark Barron instead of a cornerback or linebacker. But that's exactly what they did, and they've faced some criticism for that selection. With an up-and-down rookie season, Barron showed potential but didn't silence the critics. He's on his way to do so now, however, with some stellar performances the past three games.

Against the New England Patriots, Mark Barron showed up on the stat sheet with several big plays -- highlighted by a shared sack and an endzone interception to keep the Bucs' hopes alive. Mark Barron now has one sack, one interception, two passes defensed and 28 combined tackles in three games. He leads the team in total tackles, which is pretty impressive for a safety -- linebackers tend to lead the team in tackles.

The main reason Mark Barron is excelling is his role as a dime linebacker.  The Buccaneers have played a lot of dime packages with three safeties and three cornerbacks, where Ahmad Black and Dashon Goldson play deep while Mark Barron plays in the box, almost like a linebacker.

That alignment plays to Barron's strengths, who was mostly a box player at Alabama. He can use his physicality and instincts in the run game, affect the passer as a blitzer and align on tight ends in man coverage. He hasn't been used much in that capacity, even though he shut down Jimmy Graham against the New Orleans Saints when he was used like that.

Mark Barron isn't a perfect player, of course. Pro Football Focus was a little harsh on the safety, giving him a -0.9 grade on the day against New England, blaming him for what would have been a touchdown to Aaron Dobson. I'm not sure that was his fault, exactly, but okay. A few missed tackles don't help his grade. But overall, the safety is playing at a very high level and is turning out to be a key player in the Bucs' defense.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 draft class now looks ridiculously good. Their first three picks are turning out to be stars and key parts you can build a team around. Doug Martin, Lavonte David and Mark Barron could be the young core of a great team. Right now, though, they are simply three good players for a struggling franchise.

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