NFL Draft 2012 positional breakdowns: Safety

NFL Draft 2012 positional breakdowns: Safety
April 9, 2012, 3:32 am
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Each weekday, from now until the week of the draft, we'll take a position-by-position look at the Patriots' draft needs and which players they may be looking at. Today: Safeties

POSITION OVERVIEW
The safety class in the 2012 NFL Draft is very shallow. And, as recent history suggests, it's just not a priority position for teams, especially at the top of the draft. In 2010, Eric Berry and Earl Thomas were the fifth and 14th selections respectively (Chiefs, Seahawks). Other than that, very few over the past few seasons. The Patriots have drafted two safeties early in the past five drafts - Patrick Chung in the second round in 2009 and Brandon Meriweather in the first round in 2007. Alabama's Mark Barron is the only player with a shot to be taken in the first round this year at the safety position. Behind him is Notre Dame's Harrison Smith, a well-regarded free safety, and South Carolina's Antonio Allen.

PATRIOTS PREDICAMENTSafety is a position of need for the Patriots. Chung is a very good player and - if he can stay healthy - is a borderline Pro Bowler. But the safety position alongside him was a revolving door in 2011 and nobody who went through it was a show-stopper. Josh Barrett - a big, 6-2, 226-pounder - wound up on IR. Sergio Brown didn't get it done in his absence. And James Ihedigbo - an in-season pickup - did the best job back there. Chung is interchangeable in the free and strong safety roles and the Patriots like versatility back there; they also want a big special teams role filled by their safeties. Barron may be off the board before the Patriots pick at 27. But he's a guy who has the requisite pedigree to attract New England - two-time team captain in a big-time program who is smart, works hard and can come with a recommendation from Bill Belichick buddy Nick Saban.
TOP OF THE CLASS
Mark Barron, 6-1, 213, Alabama
A solid hitter who is excellent in run support but also can make athletic plays in pass defense downfield. An excellent leader (two-time captain) who is more of an in-the-box safety than a coverage guy. Had a double-hernia surgery after the season.
Harrison Smith, 6-2, 213, Notre Dame
A free safety with excellent quickness and instinctiveness. A four-year starter who commands respect and is an on-field leader. Has versatility between the safety positions and is solid in special teams coverage.
Antonio Allen, 6-2, 210, South CarolinaHad 88 tackles and three picks last year for the Gamecocks. Makes plays, forcing 10 turnovers his last two seasons. Solid tackler. Good worker and leader but not at the same level as Smith or Barron in terms of polish.

Jordan Bernstine, 5-10, 212, Iowa
Under-the-radar prospect the Patriots have been snooping around. He didn't go to the NFL Combine, but at Iowa's Pro Day he ran a 4.4 40 and had a 41-inch vertical. As a senior, he had 89 tackles and has terrific special teams ability in coverage and as a returner.
Brandon Taylor, 5-10, 210, LSU
Started 14 games at strong safety in his fourth and final season at LSU. Needs to become more fundamentally sound as a tackler but is highly respected as a leader and was one of Les Miles' favorite players at LSU.
BEST PATRIOTS FITS
Barron as a late first-rounder. He won't last until the Patriots' pick at 48.

Smith in the second round.

Bernstine anytime after the fourth round.