With the continued evolution and prevalence of the passing game, the need for a quality, reliable defensive secondary is without question.
But of the five defensive backs selected in the first round this year—Morris Claiborne (6), Mark Barron (7), Stephon Gilmore (10), Dre Kirkpatrick (17) and Harrison Smith (29)—who is most likely to make the biggest impact right away?
Claiborne was taken by the Cowboys, who finished 23rd against the pass last season. He was widely considered the premier cover-corner of this year's class and the 'Boys are banking on it, having traded up (and giving up their second-round pick to do so) to acquire his services, mindful of the fact that they will face Eli Manning, Michael Vick and Robert Griffin III twice every season.
Barron finds himself in perhaps the worst defensive secondary of the entire NFL last season. In short, the Bucs were bad. No, make that really bad. Better yet, they were historically bad. They blew coverages, missed tackles and allowed more points than any defensive unit in team history. And that's saying something if you remember the old "Yucs" teams of the '80s and early '90s.
Gilmore lands with Buffalo, who spent a bundle of money to acquire free agent defensive end Mario Williams this offseason. There were some analysts who suggested Gilmore, not Claiborne, was the best defensive back available in this year's class, but only time will tell how accurate that assessment is.
With that said, Gilmore appears to have the best situation because of the quality of the Bills' defensive front and the expected pressure they should cause on opposing quarterbacks. And unlike Claiborne who has three quality quarterbacks in the division to fret over, Gilmore really only has to worry about one: Tom Brady.
Kirkpatrick was drafted by the Bengals, who finished ninth in passing defense last season. However, Kirkpatrick does not appear to be in the same breathe as Claiborne and Gilmore in his coverage ability, but more than makes up for it in his run-stopping ability, which is sure to be tested in the rough and tumble AFC North.
Smith's stock rose exponentially as the draft crept closer, a direct byproduct of solid pro day and combine performances. A three-year starter at Notre Dame, Smith is a force in the run game which should translate well with Matt Forte on the schedule twice a year.
The seemingly obvious answer to the question is Barron, who will be called upon to restore the once-proud Tampa Bay defense to respectability. The Bucs allowed the third-most yards (394.4) and the most points (30.9) per game last year, so it's nearly unfathomable to think they could do any worse than last season. Therefore, the Bucs are the team that stand to show the most improvement year-over-year.
That said, I am a big fan of Gilmore and wouldn't be the least bit surprised if he wound up with six or more interceptions this season due to the pass-rushing ability of Buffalo's defensive front.
Verdict: Barron because statistically the Bucs have the most room for improvement. However, team defensive statistics aside, my gut tells me Gilmore will have the best individual season of the first-round picks mentioned above.