The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open the 2012 campaign with a rookie playing strong safety, as first-round draft pick Mark Barron will obviously be making his first NFL start. He'll be paired with a free safety who is also getting start number one.
Lest you worry that the Buccaneers are entrusting centerfield to a completely untrained duo, we should point out that the aforementioned free safety is quite a bit more experienced than the above note would suggest. In fact, he's probably bound for a bust in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Bucs' new free safety – in case you've been on a remote island the last six months – is Ronde Barber. That's the same Ronde Barber who has played cornerback in superb fashion for Tampa Bay for the past 15 years and is actually about to make his 217th NFL start. The Buccaneers' season opener against Carolina on Sunday is specifically his 200th consecutive start, which is an impressive milestone that only extends the record he already holds in that category for NFL defensive backs.
Somehow, despite all of that, moving to a new position this far into his career is giving Barber an experience that makes him feel like an NFL newbie all over again.
"You know, when you're a rookie in this game…," Barber started, before breaking up into laughter.
Okay, so maybe the move from corner to safety isn't exactly moving Barber back to NFL square one. Truth is, he's been a versatile performer in the Buccaneers' defense for years, even playing some snaps in defensive packages that essentially had him in a safety role. Because his game is so cerebral and because he's always been an incredibly good tackler for a cornerback, the notion that he could also handle a full-time safety role isn't exactly novel. The thought has occurred to coaches and personnel men in the past, but Barber was still operating at such a high level at cornerback that it never came to fruition.
Barber still played well on the corner just last year, and almost certainly could do so again this year, but the team's best lineup in 2012 is with him at free safety.
"That idea has been bounced around for years," said Barber. "[General Manager] Mark [Dominik] and [former Head Coach] Rah [Morris] talked about it openly over the years. Sooner or later, if you play long enough, you can't play corner anymore…even though I probably have the skills to still do it. We have a lot of good talent in our secondary, and if me being at safety is the best way to get our best guys on the field right now, then it is what it is. I'll take advantage of the opportunity."
Other notable defensive backs have done so in the past, including some of the best cornerbacks ever to play the game. Ronnie Lott made the transition and became one of the most feared hitters of all time. Rod Woodson, like Lott, started out at corner, moved to safety and ended up in the Hall of Fame. Others come out of college teetering on the edge of the two positions and then end up at safety, like former Buc Tanard Jackson or current Saint Malcolm Jenkins.
Barber is making the move far later in his career than any of those others (as is one of his contemporaries, Green Bay's Charles Woodson). The much more analogous example is Aeneas Williams, the long-time Cardinals cornerback who played safety for the Rams in 2003 and 2004. In Williams' first season at the new position, he racked up 60 tackles, four interceptions, one sack, eight passes defensed, four fumble recoveries and two touchdowns. That sounds like a typical Ronde Barber season, actually.
On Sunday, Barber will get his first opportunity to prove he can make the same sort of transition.
"I'm excited for my first start at safety," said Barber. "Regardless of the fact that it's my 200th [straight] start on this defense, I've looked at them all the same. It's an honor to hold a position on this team, whatever position it is. It was cornerback for 15 years and now it's free safety, and I'm grateful like any other starter. I've got a great opportunity to keep doing what I love to do."