Kevin Byard of the Tennessee Titans is embracing a new role within the locker room.

When Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard entered the NFL in 2016, he was the ultimate underdog. The third-round draft pick was snubbed of an invitation to the NFL Scouting Combine, frequently criticized by draft pundits for his inability to tackle, and he came from a small school, MTSU.

As it turns out, at least one of those things may have actually been positive in nature. Byard’s four years at MTSU actually served as a firm foundation for the player he has become. Particularly, the team’s motto of “Energy, Attitude, Toughness, Turnovers” has remained a key maxim for Byard in the NFL.

“It definitely was a big foundation being at Middle Tennessee,” Byard said. “It was something I always thought about, especially the last part of that. That’s turnovers, which is something we preached all the time, so I wanted to go into every single game and get a turnover. Showing effort, having a great attitude every day, and showing toughness throughout the year is something I always try to instill in myself.”

On the issue of his tackling ability, Byard still wonders why people cared so much about that. “I had 300+ tackles in college, some guys who they said were good tacklers back then, I don’t know where they are in the league right now…I’ve never heard anybody remember how many tackles they had in a game or how many tackles they had in a season.”

Two and a half years into his pro career, Byard is no longer an underdog. He’s an All-Pro and Pro Bowler who led the NFL in interceptions last season. He has also taken on a leadership role in the Titans’ locker room.

As a result, other teams have taken notice. Byard says that his lack of interceptions so far this season is partially a result of opponents making a distinct effort to look the other way in the passing game. “I honestly feel that a lot of teams have given me a certain respect, where I am not getting as many targets as a lot of guys around the league,” Byard said.

After losing three straight games, the Titans locker room is in a crucial situation. Head coach Mike Vrabel consistently preaches that adversity reveals the character of a team, and that idea is especially prevalent for the Titans at a time like this.

Some might criticize the Titans players for being too complacent after losing three games. After all, the demeanor in the locker room has not changed much at all over the course of the season. It is worthy of note, though, that such an attitude is far better than what is happening in other rough situations across the NFL.

The Jacksonville Jaguars, for one, resorted to in-fighting as their still-extant losing streak began. Byard says that the Titans will never stoop to that level. “We’re not a panic type group, we’re not a team that’s going to start fighting each other and causing all kinds of ruckus because we lost three games. At the end of the day, we’ve still put ourselves in a great position and we’ve just got to stick together and stick to the plan.”

Mike Vrabel often took on the role of a leader during his NFL career, and he discussed on Thursday what exactly NFL leadership is all about. “First, make sure to determine what kind of leader you are. I think that’s just being truthful to who you are. Some guys are talkers, some guys go out and lead by example. I think that you have to be careful that you’re doing your job…and then start trying to help out where it may be needed.”

When asked how Byard fits into that mold, Vrabel was complimentary. “He studies, he puts a lot into it, he loves football. He’s a class individual, he’s always here, he’s on time, he’s taking care of his body. He studies, practices, and he communicates back there, which is good.”

The safety position is one that is particularly hard to evaluate. Often times the answer to “how good is such and such safety” is answered with the number of interceptions that player has. That logic can become flawed, though, with a player like Byard.

He may have just one interception through the first seven games of this season, but he also hasn’t gotten the chances. Still, Byard has been somewhat critical of himself and wants to make sure he is making a real impact on games.

“As a personal critic of myself, I always feel like I need to make more plays, I need to impose myself in the game…That’s something that I’ll be thinking about going into the bye week, talking to the coaches, trying to find more ways that I can impose myself into the game and make plays.”

If the Titans are able to get their season turned around, Byard will likely be a big part of it. The talented third-year player may not be consistently showing up in the box score, but his impact on the team goes far beyond stats.

Cover image via Christopher Hanewinckel/USA TODAY Sports.

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