TAMPA — His rookie NFL season left safety Mark Barron swearing off roller-coasters.
The first-round draft pick of the Buccaneers in 2012 enjoyed a smooth ride at Alabama, winning two national championships while anchoring a dominating defense.
But after an encouraging start last fall, paired with 16-year veteran Ronde Barber at the back end of Tampa Bay’s secondary, Barron saw his play take a plunge. He posted fewer tackles and pass deflections, experiencing rare adversity on the football field.
“There were a few ups and downs for me personally last year,” Barron said Monday before the Bucs departed for three days of practice against the Patriots in New England. “I started off good and then somewhere in the middle of the season, I flattened out. Toward the end, I picked it up again. It was pretty much a roller-coaster for me.”
Barron, 23, can’t wait to show teammates and coaches his full array of skills.
Barron was exposed in coverage at times last year, but the offseason additions of two Pro Bowl players, safety Dashon Goldson and cornerback Darrelle Revis, will allow Barron to play a role similar to former Bucs safety John Lynch, lining up closer to the line of scrimmage.
“He’s going to do some things for us underneath in our sub-packages,” coach Greg Schiano said. “So there’s an aspect of the game that you never got to see.”
Barron ranked fourth on the team with 89 tackles as a rookie and he will be asked to provide even more run support. He also gives defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan options as a fast, physical blitzer who can supplement a pass rush that generated an NFC-low 27 sacks in 2012.
“Mark’s rookie year was very typical,” Sheridan said. “The season got long and it’s physically wearing. And it’s much more competitive up here. In college, Mark was physically superior compared to the majority of the guys. While he’s got fantastic talent, so does everyone else in the NFL. That’s why the details and techniques are so much more critical at this level.”
After registering five sacks in his Crimson Tide career, Barron failed to drop a quarterback as an NFL rookie. Still, he remains confident in his abilities to bring the heat.
“Early in the season, I blitzed a lot,” he said. “When I get involved early, I usually have a better game.”
At 23, Barron is the only returning starter in the Tampa Bay secondary.
Aqib Talib was traded to the Patriots last fall, Barber retired three months ago and Eric Wright was released shortly before training camp began.
That leaves Barron surrounded by Goldson, Revis and either rookie Johnthan Banks or second-year pro Leonard Johnson.
“I think having Darrelle and Dashon on board will take a little pressure off Mark,” Sheridan said. “Those two guys are veteran performers. With them around, I don’t think Mark will have too much on his shoulders, other than just playing well.”
In trading down and selecting Barron, the Bucs passed on an opportunity to draft LSU corner Morris Claiborne last year. While Claiborne struggled with injuries and inconsistency in Dallas, Barron faced his own issues in Tampa.
“I’m hard on myself,” he said. “Going through that midseason stretch, I wasn’t as involved as I wanted to be. I wasn’t making the amount of plays I’m used to making. That left me trying to figure out if I was doing something wrong. Looking back, I’m not sure what happened.”
As a group, the Bucs gained confidence when they won 22-17 at Atlanta in the season finale, snapping a five-game losing streak to finish 7-9.
And it was Barron, in particular, who may have gained the most that afternoon at the Georgia Dome, securing the victory by knocking away Matt Ryan’s fourth-down pass intended for future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez.
“That play was important for both me and the team,” said Barron, who started all 16 games last year. “And now I’m very excited about our season coming up. I’ve got a year of experience and I’m looking to build on it. I’m excited about the new players we’ve brought in and how it all comes together.
“I got to do a little bit of everything at Alabama. I’ll be playing the exact same position here this year, in a different scheme.”