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10 Greatest Safeties of All Time

The last line of defense, there’s a wide range of play styles that can make a hall-of-fame safety. 

Determining the top spot was a competitive affair between Ed Reed and Ronnie Lott, with Lott ultimately taking the top spot. But there’s a compelling case to be made for several of the other players on the list. The third spot was given to the league’s all-time leader in interceptions, Paul Krause.

My name is David, and I started playing football when I was nine years old. A quarterback by trade, I didn’t have the arm strength to play past high school. Since then I’ve followed professional football closely, and have enjoyed watching the transition to a more open game focused on the pass that offers more chances for safeties to enforce their will.

In this article, you’ll find an in-depth player profile on each of my top ten picks, including accolades, highlights, and a summary of their career’s best season. I tried to make my choices regardless of era, taking into account that differences in the league’s play style can severely influence a player’s career numbers.

#10 Steve Atwater

Dennis Smith & Steve Atwater

Best Season: 1991 – 5 interceptions, 150 combined tackles, First Team All-Pro.

A long-time member of the Denver Broncos, Steve Atwater peaked in the early 90s with back-to-back first-team all-pro selections. Despite being listed as a free safety, Atwater was often deployed close to the line of scrimmage. The strategy was more than successful, with Atwater logging more than 100 tackles in six of his first seven seasons. [1]

Despite spending more time near the line of scrimmage to help defend the run game, Atwater still managed to record 24 interceptions in his eleven-year career. 

He saved his best for the biggest stage, playing a huge role in the Broncos’ first Super Bowl title in 1997. [2]

Atwater stifled the Packers’ running game while also tallying a sack, two passes defended, and a forced fumble. His key pass breakup in the final minutes of the game helped stifle the Packers’ last-ditch effort to tie the game and seal the victory for Denver. [3]

Read more: WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A 2 POINT CONVERSION GETS INTERCEPTED?

#9 John Lynch

Best Season: 2000 – 3 interceptions, 2 fumble recoveries, First Team All-Pro

For much of the 80s and 90s, the Buccaneers were a laughingstock. But after hiring defensive guru Tony Dungy as their head coach in 1995, the Bucs forged an identity based on a suffocating defense.

While DT Warren Sapp anchored the line and Derrick Brooks led the linebacking corps, hard-hitting strong safety John Lynch patrolled the back end. A physical and imposing ballhawk, Lynch topped 100 tackles three times while picking off 26 passes and forcing 16 fumbles. [4]

Lynch made nine pro bowls and four consecutive all-pro teams between 1999 and 2002, culminating in a Super Bowl title in 2002. [5]

Lynch didn’t have the longevity of some players further down this list. Still, his 1999-2002 peak is one of the best for strong safety, and his pivotal role on one of the best defenses of the last 30 years makes him a worthy candidate for the #10 spot on our list.

Read more: WHAT IS FUMBLES IN AMERICAN FOOTBALL?

#8 Darren Woodson

Best Season: 1994 – 5 interceptions, 1 touchdown, First Team All-Pro

Woodsen is another 90s/00s safety with a dominant peak, though he remained a reliable starter into his mid-30s and was still an average starter when he decided to call it a career at the somewhat young age of 34.

Drafted as a linebacker in 1992, Dallas quickly converted the “safety in waiting” to the secondary. [6]

Woodsen responded to the position change by becoming one of the most feared, ball-hawking safeties in the game and was selected to the all-pro first team in 1994, 1995, and 1996. [7]

Totaling 23 interceptions, Woodson chose to retire after a herniated disk and subsequent surgery kept him out for the 2004 season. While he never came close to matching his three-year run in the mid-90s, I’ll take a peak like that on a Super Bowl caliber over a longer career of mostly above-average play any day.

#7 Earl Thomas

GLENDALE, AZ – OCTOBER 23: Free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks on the sidelines during the NFL game against the Arizona Cardinals at the University of Phoenix Stadium on October 23, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Best Season: 2013 – 5 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 105 combined tackles, 3rd in DPOY voting.

Few defenses have struck more fear into opposing teams than the Seahawks’ fabled legion of boom of the early 2010s. While cornerback Richard Sherman claimed a lot of headlines with his physical play and vocal antics, Thomas anchored the back end of the secondary, covering huge swathes of territory and covering up any mistakes born from the corner’s press-style play. 

From 2010-2017, Thomas and the Seahawks harassed passing games with Thomas picking off 25 passes during that time. [8]

His peak was the 2013 and 2014 seasons where Thomas averaged over 100 tackles, forced six fumbles, and finished third in defensive player of the year voting in 2013. [9]

I’ll take Thomas’ peak over either Woodson or Lynch, two other semi-modern safeties that also lacked longevity to some extent. Sadly, Thomas’ career ended at 30, not due to injuries, but off-the-field issues. If not for those, it’s reasonable to say Thomas could have topped the whole list. 

#6 Jack Tatum

Best Season: 1972 – 6 total turnovers, 1 touchdown, 9th in DPOY

In an age before player health and safety were a real concern, Jack Tatum roamed the open field and terrorized receivers with his punishing hits. Nicknamed, “The Assassin,” Tatum’s career is shrouded by the unfortunate hit that paralyzed wide receiver, Daryl Stingley. [10]

We don’t have as much footage from the 70s, but what video we have showcases Tatum’s hard-hitting profile and the fear he instilled whenever a receiver went over the middle. A member of the Raiders’ first Super Bowl title, Tatum appropriately provided one of the most famous hits in the game’s history.

But Tatum was more than an enforcer. He was solid in coverage, capable of jumping routes and taking advantage of overthrows which led to 37 total interceptions. [11]

Like many players of the era, Tatum’s career ended early. Tatum retired after his age 32 season following his release from the Houston Oilers. [12]

Read more: WHAT IS AN ELIGIBLE RECEIVER?

#5 Larry Wilson

Best Season: 1966 – 10 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, 2nd in MVP

In an era where quarterbacks were much more blase with the football, Larry Wilson made lives miserable, snapping errant passes out of the air and recording 52 total interceptions in his 13-year career. [13]

A five-time first-team All-Pro, Wilson is the owner of one of the most statistically impressive seasons by a defensive back. 1966 was one of the ages, as Wilson led the league with ten interceptions including two that he returned for touchdowns. He finished second in the entire NFL in MVP voting that year, the first of his five All-Pro selections. [14]

He wasn’t as physically imposing as Tatum but was one of the first prototypical free safeties with a nose for the ball, big plays, and popularizing the safety blitz. [15]

#4 Troy Polamalu

Best Season: 2010 – 7 interceptions, 6 tackles for loss, 1 touchdown, DPOY

The modern-day version of Jack Tatum, Polamalu goes down as one of the most iconic players to ever wear a Pittsburgh Steelers jersey. A first-round pick in 2013, Polamalu saw little of the field his rookie year. But wasted little time after coach Bill Cowher anointed him the starter in 2004, recording 97 tackles, five interceptions, and being named second-team All-Pro. [16]

Polamalu would go on to make nine pro bowls total along with six All-Pro selections. But his finest moment came in 2010 when he was selected as the Defensive Player of the Year after intercepting seven passes and defending eleven more. [17]

The season ended with a 31-25 victory over the Packers in the Super Bowl.

Selected to the hall-of-fame in his first year of eligibility, Polamalu represents the modern ideal at the position with a lethal combination of explosiveness, hard hits, and big play ability that led to five career touchdowns, 32 interceptions, and 14 forced fumbles. [18, 19]

#3 Paul Krause

Best Season: 1975 – 10 interceptions, 201 return yards, 1 touchdown, First Team All-Pro

Like Larry Wilson, Krause was one of the best pass defenders of the era. But Krause had an even better nose for the ball and managed to stay healthy enough to spend 16 seasons in the NFL. That longevity allowed Krause to pick off 81 passes in his career which is still the most in NFL history. [20]

Krause spent most of his career with the Minnesota Vikings, appearing in four Super Bowls. [21]

Perhaps his finest year came in 1975 as the final line of defense of Minnesota’s famed “Purple People Eater” defense. [22]

With a defensive line that often had opposing quarterbacks running for their lives, Krause’s instincts and anticipation led to a league-leading ten interceptions. In my opinion, Krause wasn’t recognized on the NFL’s All-Pro teams as often as he should have been and the all-time leader in interceptions deserves proper recognition. 

#2 Ed Reed

Best Season: 2004 – 9 interceptions, 2 touchdowns, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, DPOY.

Like many of the safeties on this list, Reed patrolled the back end of one of the most famous (and notorious) defenses in NFL history. Linebacker Ray Lewis may get a lot of praise for the success of the Ravens’ fearsome defense of the ’00s, but it was Ed Reed who Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick praised at every opportunity. [23]

Reed led the NFL in interceptions three separate times on his way to a career total of 64. [24]

Reed was a big play monster, racking up nine career touchdowns in his 13-year career to go along with nine All-Pro selections. 

Few can come close to matching Reed’s 2004 season when he led the league with nine interceptions, scored two touchdowns, forced three fumbles, and recovered two more, dragging a team quarterbacked by Kyle Boller to nine victories. [25]

#1 Ronnie Lott

Best Season: 1981 – 7 interceptions, 3 fumble recoveries, 3 touchdowns, 2nd in DROY, 6th in MVP.

I have a simple rule: if you have your finger amputated so that you don’t miss the start of the season, you get placed at number one. Lott chose to have part of his pinky finger amputated instead of bone graft surgery during the 1985 offseason, as the graft would have meant missing the beginning of the following season. [26]

But the mystique of that decision has come to overshadow Lott’s incredible career. Lott was part of four Super Bowl championships, and like many of the players at the top of this list, was a turnover machine, registering 63 total interceptions. [27]

We are cheating here just a little bit, as Lott began his career at cornerback before transitioning to safety halfway through his fifth year. [28]

But Lott put up some of his best seasons at safety including six straight All-Pro selections and leading the league in interceptions in both 1986 and 1991. [29]

Few players can match Lott’s combination of personal and team achievements while also being recognized as the heartbeat and leader of the 49ers defense during the dynasty that lasted much of the 1980s. [30]

Conclusion

Even as the NFL becomes a more pass-focused affair, interception numbers have decreased. [31]

Quarterbacks and offenses are more efficient and comfortable passing the ball than they were when Paul Krause roamed the defensive backfield, and it can make it tricky to judge modern-day safeties against their predecessors.

But there are still myriad ways a superstar safety can alter the course of the game. In many cases, it involves being the defense’s quarterback, diagnosing the play, anticipating where receivers will be, and discouraging the quarterback from making the pass that would have been a turnover in the 1970s.

But it’s difficult to parse the best of the best from each other with the metrics available. Who did I snub? Who would have been a lock for your top ten? Let us know in the comments below.

Read more: WHO IS THE FASTEST RUNNING BACK OF ALL TIME?

References

  1. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/A/AtwaSt00.htm
  2. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199801250den.htm
  3. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/boxscores/199801250den.htm
  4. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/L/LyncJo00.htm
  5. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/years/2002/
  6. http://www.espn.com/blog/nflnation/post/_/id/185772/mike-zimmer-darren-woodson-is-the-best-player
  7. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/W/WoodDa01.htm
  8. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/T/ThomEa99.htm
  9. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/T/ThomEa99.htm
  10. https://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/28/sports/football/28tatum.html?_r=0
  11. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/T/TatuJa00.htm
  12. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/T/TatuJa00.htm
  13. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/W/WilsLa00.htm
  14. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/W/WilsLa00.htm
  15. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/18/sports/football/larry-wilson-dead.html
  16. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/P/PolaTr99.htm
  17. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/P/PolaTr99.htm
  18. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/P/PolaTr99.htm
  19. https://www.profootballhof.com/players/troy-polamalu/
  20. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/leaders/def_int_career.htm
  21. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/K/KrauPa00.htm
  22. https://web.archive.org/web/20081123091032/http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,840243,00.html
  23. https://nesn.com/2019/12/bill-belichick-couldnt-contain-excitement-when-evaluating-ed-reed-on-nfl-100/#:~:text=Outside%20of%20Lawrence%20Tayler%20%28and%20maybe%20Tom%20Brady%29%2C,the%20Pro%20Football%20Hall%20of%20Fame%20in%20August.
  24. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/R/ReedEd00.htm
  25. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/teams/rav/2004.htm
  26. https://www.si.com/nfl/2014/06/17/nfl-history-in-95-objects-ronnie-lott-amputated-pinkie-finger
  27. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/L/LottRo00.htm
  28. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/L/LottRo00.htm
  29. https://www.pro-football-reference.com/players/L/LottRo00.htm
  30. https://www.yardbarker.com/nfl/articles/ronnie_lott_career_retrospective/s1__38298592
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