It is of little surprise that Titans’ general manager Jon Robinson selected Kevin Byard of Middle Tennessee State University with the No. 64 overall pick of the 2016 NFL Draft.
Robinson has a history of selecting productive and hard working NCAA prospects. Among them are Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Jameis Winston, Devin McCourty and Chandler Jones.
Byard fits Robinson’s scouting mold.
In 49 career games at MTSU the safety forced or gained 25 turnovers (19 INTs, 5 FFs, 1 FR), which earned him First Team All-Conference USA honors in 2014 and 2015, and the 7th best coverage grade of his class according to Pro Football Focus.
Byard’s successes are a result of diligent practice. The safety was a workhorse in college. In fact, MTSU defensive coordinator Steve Ellis describes Byard as a player of “relentless work,” who could be found running alone in Floyd Stadium on Sundays, even though there were no organized team practices.
Robinson reportedly had his eyes on Byard years before the Draft in April.
Steve Ellis told Robinson of Byard’s potential as early as 2011, when Robinson was working for the New England Patriots’ front office. Ellis played for Robinson when he was a linebackers’ coach at Nicholls State. Since then the two have remained close friends, and Ellis tells Robinson of promising NFL prospects.
“Kevin’s a kid I’ve been bragging to Coach Rob about since we signed him,” Ellis said. “I’ve been talking about this kid for the last five years.”
Robinson also heard about Byard’s potential from Patrick Calloway, a scouting assistant for the Titans. Callaway played linebacker with Byard at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Lithonia, Georgia.
All these factors — collegiate productivity, hard work, and scouting recommendations — brought the MTSU safety to the Titans. For Byard, the selection was “a dream come true.”
During a conference call with the Titans after the Draft, Byard expressed both his gratitude and excitement to be a member of the Two Tone Blue.
“Man it feels great,” Byard said. “To be able to drive only 30 minutes up the street from MTSU [to Nissan Stadium]. It’s the greatest feeling in the world, man. I’m at a loss of words right now. My family’s with me, and we’re just very excited.”
The Titans should be excited too, as the team looks to benefit from Byard’s ball skills. Tennessee struggled to defend the pass last season, ranking 21st in interceptions (11 INTs) and 28th in pass touchdowns allowed (34 TDs).
Byard says that he learned to defend the pass while playing quarterback and wide receiver in high school. The experience gave him insight into offensive strategy and route running. When he transitioned to defense, Byard understood where quarterbacks would throw the football and how receivers would position themselves for a reception – knowledge conducive to making interceptions.
At the Titans’ rookie mini camp Byard further explained that his ball skills come from watching film and natural instincts: “It starts in the film room … I watch a lot of film, know what I’m doing out there on the field, and the rest is just instincts.”
Thus far Byard has transitioned well into the NFL. The rookie is impressing Titans’ personnel — particularly Dick Labeau — with his football IQ. In fact, Byard has proved to be one of the most knowledgeable rookies in Tennessee.
Coach Mike Mularkey said of Byard after his first day of practice in rookie minicamp: “We are pretty extensive in our defensive calls with coach LeBeau, and when we did work out with Kevin and sit down with him, he was easily the best on the board in being able to retain (information) and shoot it back at us, and it is evident out here he is very comfortable doing that.’’
Although Byard looks to play behind veteran safeties Da’Norris Searcy and Rashad Johnson next season, the rookie intends to make an immediate impact on special teams and to contend for a starting role on the Titans’ roster.
“I’m going to come in, and I’m going to work as hard as anybody who comes in. I’m going to go in there and be an immediate impact on special teams and fight for a starting job.”
Robinson drafts NCAA players who project well into their second year as professionals, so we should not expect immediate successes from Byard. However, the MTSU-hometown safety appears to be a player worthy of close attention.