Harris: Steelers should opt for safety in draft

| Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 5:53 a.m.

Just so you know, quarterback, center, kicker and long snapper are the only positions off-limits to the Steelers in the first round of next week's NFL Draft.

For instance, the Steelers could select a tackle with their first pick. Or a guard. Or a running back. Or a nose tackle, inside linebacker, outside linebacker or a cornerback to play the left side. They have legitimate needs at each of those positions.

Here's another position of need for the Steelers, and one that has been glossed over for too long: safety.

Alabama's Mark Barron is 6-foot-1, 213 pounds. He has been compared favorably to Troy Polamalu. He's a perfect fit for the Steelers, who have the No. 24 overall selection.

I know, I know — Ryan Clark recorded 100 tackles and made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2011. He's also 32, has had injury issues, and is due to earn $6.5 million in base salary over the next two seasons. He's been getting by on his smarts, which is a polite way of saying he's the opposite of fast.

Clark discussed his speed — or lack thereof — on ESPN's “First Take” on Monday, and he got the worse of it debating Skip Bayless (not good). The fact remains that Clark has been replaced in certain passing packages by players with less experience but who are more athletic — in other words, faster — going back to Super Bowl XLV against Green Bay.

The NFL, in case you didn't notice, is a passing league. The Steelers need more defensive backs (safeties as well as corners) who can cover and possess above-average speed.

For years, Polamalu was the Steelers' athletic safety. In fact, he was the most athletic safety in the NFL, with perhaps the exception of Baltimore's Ed Reed.

However, multiple injuries and concussions have curtailed his explosiveness. Polamalu doesn't always fly to the ball the way he used to.

Behind Polamalu and Clark are Ryan Mundy and Will Allen, capable backups who have had ample opportunity to start but still come off the bench.

Why should the Steelers draft a safety such as Barron and not a linebacker like Alabama's Dont'a Hightower in the first round?

First, let's look at linebacker. The Steelers already pay big money to LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and James Harrison. Jason Worilds is a second-round pick. Are the Steelers going to invest first-round money in another linebacker when they've already shelled out big dollars at that position?

It's been said by scouts that Barron plays a lot like Polamalu. Barron is so good he could be gone early in the first round, but safeties have a tendency to drop in the draft. He also could be available for the Steelers at No. 24.

Barron can play either safety position, but he projects best at strong safety in the NFL. At Alabama, he was best at playing in the box, where he had a tendency to play the run first before falling back into coverage. A playmaker in the passing game, he had seven interceptions in 2009.

“The (Alabama) coaches feel he is an ideal role model for the younger players, showing good mentoring skills and a great work ethic,'' said Dave-Te' Thomas, who runs Scouting Services Inc. and produces The NFL Draft Report, a publication provided by league headquarters to the media in preparation for the draft. “He puts in the extra hours in the film and training room and is smart enough to sit in on game-planning with the coaching staff.''

Barron has been linked with the Eagles, Jets and Jaguars, all of whom pick before the Steelers. The Steelers still need to draft an athletic safety — someone who can run with tight ends as well as wide receivers.

Granted, the Steelers could select a safety later in the draft if Barron is off the board, or they may go in another direction at No. 24. Of course, if they follow the safety route, whoever they select won't be as talented as Barron. Still, the Steelers must address the safety position — the sooner, the better.

Barron is a smart guy who happens to be talented. He's also a team player, which might make him a Steeler.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at jharris@tribweb.

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