The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never used a first-round pick to draft a safety. Barring a trade down, that's not likely to change in 2012.
Whether or not the Buccaneers address the position at all during the first two days of the 2012 NFL Draft may depend upon how much value the rest of the league puts on this year's crop of safeties. That league consensus will also determine whether or Notre Dame's Harrison Smith will be able to call himself a first-rounder.
The Buccaneers are currently slated to pick fifth in this month's draft, and you won't find a safety lurking around that spot in anyone's predictions. Alabama's Mark Barron is the only safety reliably showing up in the first round of this year's mock drafts, and he's not commonly cracking the top 10. NFL.com's own draft coverage has a graded and ranked list of prospects, and Barron is the only one in the top 40. Smith comes in at #42 and the next safety, McNeese State's Janzen Jackson, slots in at #77.
Often a second thought in the early going of any NFL Draft, safeties have gotten some love in recent years. Tennessee's Eric Berry went fifth overall just two years ago, and Texas' Earl Thomas followed nine picks later. LSU's LaRon Landry came off the board at #6 in 2007, one year after Texas' Michael Huff and Ohio State's Donte Whitner went back-to-back at #7 and #8. The late Sean Jones of the Miami Hurricanes started this run in 2004, going #5 overall.
Last year, however, UCLA's Rahim Moore had to wait until pick #45 in the second round to become the first safety drafted. In 2009, Louis Delmas and Patrick Chung were the first two safeties selected, and they were also the first two picks of the second round. Barron's presence will probably prevent a repeat of that first-round shutout, but the question is whether any other teams will see a good match between a need at safety and a high draft pick.
At the NFL Scouting Combine in February, Barron made a point of defending himself and his fellow safeties, and seemed rankled by the idea that highly-rated cornerbacks are inherently more valuable than highly-rated safeties.
"If a guy's a good player, then he's just a good player," said Barron. "I don't see why, position-wise, if you have a better player that's a safety and then you have a corner that might not be a better football player, I see no reason why the corner should go ahead of the safety. I've seen it happen. I just don't understand it, but that's not my position to pick."
Smith, on the other hand, decided it wasn't worth wasting his mental energy on that topic, choosing to focus on simply presenting himself as best he could. It doesn't bother him to be labeled a second-round pick in mock drafts…and of course it's the NFL's scouts and coaches he needs to impress, anyway, not the mock drafters.
"Friends will take some exception and say, 'This is what so-and-so said about you,' and stuff like that," said Smith. "But I really, throughout my whole college career and even now, I try not to get caught up in all that, really, because at the end of the day I can only control what I do."
A very productive safety for four seasons at Notre Dame (51 games, 47 starts, 309 tackles, 18.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, 28 passes defensed), Smith has helped himself considerably since the end of the 2011 NCAA season. At the Senior Bowl in January, in front of hundreds of NFL coaches and scouts, he showed off a rock-hard physique and very good downfield coverage skills. At the Combine, Smith did well in the bench press, the vertical leap and, most importantly, the 40-yard dash, in which he ran a nice 4.56. That's particularly good considering scouts commonly say that he plays faster than his measured times.
At this point, in fact, Smith is starting to get some attention in the first rounds of various mock drafts. The latest one by ESPN.com's Todd McShay, for instance, slots Smith in at #29 overall, to the Baltimore Ravens. It helps that Smith is seen as a very well-rounded player at his position. His size automatically makes observers assume (correctly, in this case), that he is a hard hitter, and it's worth noting that he lists former Denver Broncos demolition man Steve Atwater as his all-time favorite safety. But that doesn't mean he's a liability in pass coverage.
"I think I'm a versatile player," he said. "And on top of that, I'm a guy who's going to be able to get the defense lined up, recognize formations, make checks and just communicate the defense."
Moreover, as Smith himself notes, the tight end position has become more of a focal point in many NFL offenses, with the likes of Jimmy Graham, Vernon Davis and Rob Gronkowski rolling up huge numbers, Smith believes that defenses are looking for ways to counter this trend, which makes a player of his size and coverage ability more valuable.
"That's something that I think I'm good at, and that I can bring to teams, is the ability to cover tight ends man-to-man," he said. "It's something I did throughout my career. In practice I got to go against Kyle Rudolph, who was a high draft pick last year. This past year I went against Tyler Eifert, and he'll be picked next year. [It's a matter of] just being around good competition and going up against it every day in practice.
"There's a difference when you're dealing with a guy that size, like all these tight ends are. They're tall, they can run, they're agile, they've got big hands and they can catch everything. There'd be times in practice when I'd have Kyle covered, but he'd still catch the ball, just because he's so big you can't get around him. So it's really just about body position."
Could Smith help the Buccaneers, should it turn out that his stock has not risen far enough to take him into the second half of the opening round (or if the Bucs end up trading down)? Tampa Bay picks fourth in the second round, #36 overall, and does appear to have a need at the position, at least in terms of depth. Tanard Jackson, who started 10 games at free safety in 2011, was terminated/failed physical last week. Last year's starting strong safety, Sean Jones, is an unrestricted free agent who hasn't been re-signed. Third-year man Cody Grimm has plenty of starting experience and could step right in, but he has missed good portion of the last two seasons due to injury. And the Buccaneers' defense did have a particular problem with giving up too many big plays in the passing game last year. Of course, many of those were by receivers, not tight ends, but Smith said he can help in that regard, as well.
"I feel like in certain schemes you're going to be asked to do certain things," he said. "And you're going to have help in certain areas, over the top or wherever. So you just have to know what you're doing, and at the end of the day I feel like that's something I excel at, so I'll be able to put my body in the right position to make an impact on that play."
If enough NFL scouts agree with Smith's self-assessment, he might just make it into the first round next Thursday night. Not that such an honor will have a big impact on his NFL career. The greatest safety in Buccaneers history, John Lynch, was a third-round pick. Tampa Bay's Super Bowl XXXVII MVP, Dexter Jackson, was a fourth-rounder. Smith has chosen not to dwell on his likely landing spot in the draft order, knowing it won't affect his approach to the game once he arrives at his new NFL home.
"Like I said earlier, I can't change what people think," he said. "I can only do what I do."