Beyond the Analytics: St. Louis Rams’ Mark Barron is an Elite Defensive Contributor


When linebacker Alec Ogletree went down with a broken fibula last month, it looked like a major loss for the St. Louis Rams, as the third-year linebacker was the Rams’ leading tackler with 42 stops after four games. The Rams didn’t even have an obvious candidate to step in for Ogletree, as Akeem Ayers was much better suited for his natural strongside linebacker role, and backups Daren Bates, Cameron Lynch, and Bryce Hager made the roster for their special teams skills.

The Rams found a solution, however, in converted safety Mark Barron, who has been playing linebacker in a sub package role since his acquisition last October, but first took up the position full time two weeks ago against the Cleveland Browns. In two starts since becoming an every-down player, Barron has 26 total tackles, according to ESPN. Despite not recording more than five tackles in a single game until his official ascension into the weakside linebacker role against Cleveland, Barron is now the Rams’ second-leading tackler, ranking only behind James Laurinaitis (according to Rams coaches, however, Barron is tied with Ogletree for the team lead).

But while Barron has been an extremely productive tackler lately and has made a huge impact all season as a blitzer and an overall bringer of intensity to the Rams’ defense, can he really be considered a good player? Some analytics-driven football analysts seem to think not, particularly those at Pro Football Focus. In Barron’s start against Cleveland, PFF credited him with 16 tackles and seven stops, but he still received a -1.6 coverage grade and a -0.7 run defense grade, meaning that he received a -2.3 overall grade for the day. PFF’s Sam Monson even went on a bit of a Twitter rant against Barron:

After reviewing Barron’s recent game film and considering how (relatively) badly he was graded, it’s quite obvious that PFF’s grading system is imperfect. Much like in baseball, where most analytical fans have recognized the insignificance of fielding percentage as a true measure of a player’s fielding ability, PFF seems to need a more advanced system for grading coverage. Just as a baseball player who is exceptionally rangy and is willing to take chances on riskier plays is more likely to make errors than a fielder who consistently plays it safe and doesn’t try to play tough balls, a linebacker who is given greater responsibilities in coverage and tasked with covering receivers should be held to a different standard than one who only picks up tight ends in zone coverage and shadows running backs coming out of the backfield.

As Barron has put it, he’s basically just playing safety at linebacker depth; the only difference is that he’s getting significantly more blitzing opportunities in his current role than if he were a true safety in the Rams’ defense. In his starts against San Francisco and Cleveland, he spent a large chunk of his time on the field playing zone coverage, often handling a section of the field about 5-7 yards behind where the defensive tackles line up. Against Cleveland, however, he saw brief action in man coverage against tight end Gary Barnidge and slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, and against San Francisco he was deployed more in man coverage against tight ends Garrett Celek, Vince McDonald, and Vernon Davis. Against both teams, he spent some time shadowing running backs in pass coverage. Just as he did before moving into a full-time role, Barron also got plenty of work as a blitzer off the edge, particularly on third downs.

More from Arch Authority

While Barron may not have completely shut it down in coverage on every play, he was given greater coverage responsibilities than most NFL linebackers would have. Though Hawkins did not have a catch while entering Barron’s zone twice and going up against him in man coverage once, he’s an exceptionally athletic weapon: he’s a former track star and ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at his college pro day. Barron also ended up covering Cleveland’s top receiver, Travis Benjamin (who ran a 4.36 40 at the Combine), on three different plays. On one of those plays, Benjamin made a 10-yard catch but was quickly brought down by Barron. There’s not much that Barron could have done to remedy the situation, as quarterback Josh McCown got the pass off within 0.55 seconds of the snap and delivered it to Benjamin within another 0.8 seconds. With Barron playing off of Benjamin to begin with, he did the best he possibly could have to limit the damage, and there’s no reason that he should have been faulted for the Browns’ success on that play.

Against San Francisco, Barron was tasked for one play with covering slot receiver Quinton Patton, who ran a 4.01 20-yard shuttle at the NFL combine (equal to Tavon Austin’s time in that event). That was the only time against San Francisco where Barron really got exposed, giving up a 33-yard catch to the third-year receiver.

The only failure in coverage that you can absolutely fault Barron for came against Cleveland, when he allowed a 28-yard catch to Barnidge while he was handling him in man coverage. On nearly all the other plays against the Browns, Barron was playing far off the player who made the catch, and he went on to come up and make the tackle after the catch was made. Obviously, in an ideal world (or at least the one that PFF seems to live in), a linebacker would break up every pass that comes into his zone, even if he’s playing 10 yards off the receiver as the ball is snapped. But considering the initial damage that had already been done, Barron did the best he could to quickly remedy the situation whenever possible against Cleveland.

More from St. Louis Rams

Interestingly, he allowed five catches against San Francisco and was not nearly as active as a tackler in those situations as he was against Cleveland, so it can be inferred that PFF looks particularly negatively upon a player who makes lots of tackles on passing plays if they’re playing in the back seven.

By contrast, 6-foot-4, 246-pound Seattle Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright is Pro Football Focus’s top-rated 4-3 outside linebacker. Wright plays a role that’s decently similar to Barron’s—he’s very active in pursuit and is a prolific tackler, and he usually plays zone coverage over the middle while occasionally moving out into the slot—but Wright is not given nearly the amount of responsibility in coverage that Barron has. In Wright’s two most recent games against the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys, he primarily protected the middle of the field in zone coverage. The only player Wright covered over the two games who remotely approached the athleticism of Benjamin, Hawkins, or Patton was Cowboys slot receiver Cole Beasley, who Wright covered for just a single play.

Wright, who is tied for 15th in the NFL with 58 tackles according to ESPN, ended up making the tackle on three of the six plays where he allowed catches between the two games, so it’s difficult to tell why he has the admiration of PFF and Barron doesn’t. That’s not to say Wright’s a bad player—on the contrary, he’s a fantastic asset who is a major contributor to his defense—but PFF obviously needs to develop a way to differentiate differences in schemes and variations in roles among different units, because when Barron does what he’s done for the Rams’ defense over the past two games, there’s no reason that he shouldn’t be on or near the same level as a player like Wright.

While the tackle may not be the all-meaningful stat that the most dense “box score scouts” view it to be, it’s still a rather important metric; after all, if no tackle is made on a successful offensive play, that means the offense scored a touchdown. The Rams haven’t allowed one of those in nine quarters, so perhaps we should just appreciate the current shutdown nature of the Rams’ defense, rather than worrying about coverage for which we don’t even know the actual responsibilities on plays where the offensive gains were minimal anyway.

Next: Rams Promote DE Matt Longacre to 53-Man Roster

Head to our Rams page for coverage of Sunday’s matchup with the Minnesota Vikings.