Mike Tomlin should’ve listened to us. At the time, we pegged Middle Tennessee State safety Kevin Byard as one of the draft’s sleepers, a ballhawking defensive back at a smaller school who the NFL didn’t seem to pay much mind to. Now, he’s one of the league’s top centerfielders.
Talking with the media Tuesday, Mike Tomlin looked back on Byard’s draft class and laughed at his own expense for missing on him.
“Can’t say enough about [Byard] at safety,” Tomlin said via the Steelers’ YouTube channel. “He was a ball guy when he came out of [Middle Tennessee State]. I kicked myself often. When you think about a guy like him that’s played the way he’s played since he’s been in the league. He was a non-combine invite with 19 career interceptions at Middle Tennessee. I know better. A guy that has double digit interceptions in college, usually the ball is not hitting him in the face. They have some skills that are displayed. They’re going to get it.”
Byard had a tremendous college career as one of the NCAA’s best defensive backs, picking off at least four passes each year. He didn’t just take advantage of playing lesser opponents either. One of his top performances came against Alabama, recording eight tackles (one for a loss) and an interception that day.
Invited to the Senior Bowl, he was shockingly left off the Combine list. Our scouting report spoke highly of him, concluding:
“Byard is a popular sleeper pick and I am pretty disappointed to see him not get a Combine invite, he was one of its biggest snubs, or a pre-draft look from Pittsburgh. Knowing both and the team’s history, it seems unlikely they’ll take Byard. Don’t often take non-Combine players and ones from small schools. Only ones under Mike Tomlin are Rob Blanchflower and Frank Summers.
But listen for Byard’s name on Day 2. Bet he goes and whoever snags him will have a good player.”
Pittsburgh drafted a safety on Day 2, but took Sean Davis from Maryland 58th overall. Byard was selected six picks later by the Tennessee Titans. Davis’ career with the Steelers was disappointing while Byard has flourished, leading the league with eight interceptions his second year with 23 in his career.
“He’s continued to go get it since he’s been in the league,” Tomlin said of Byard. “He’s got five this year. He’s got a caused fumble, he’s got a fumble recovery. He’s good in the deep defense. He’s good down in the box. He’s good in man coverage. He’s a good blitzer. He’s just one of those all-situations guys that’s really playing at a Pro Bowl level for them.”
Byard is one of several great players on that Titans’ defense Pittsburgh will need to worry about Sunday. Others include DL Jeffrey Simmons, an underrated interior defensive lineman, and EDGE Harold Landry, who the Steelers also looked at and is the Titans’ sack leader with 11 on the year. If those guys get pressure up front, Byard will make Pittsburgh pay.