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B/R NFL 1,000: Top 32 Free Safeties

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterMarch 26, 2012

B/R NFL 1,000: Top 32 Free Safeties

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    What makes up a good free safety? Range, speed, being a good tackler, being able to read the quarterback. These are all a big part of what the position requires. But who's the best?

    We've set out to find the best free safeties in the NFL—based on how well they tackle, stop the run, cover deep, and come up to take on blockers. Each starter has been assessed as to how he exemplified those traits in 2011. The quest comes as part of the B/R NFL 1,000. The series offers an in-depth look at every position in the NFL, breaking down players' skills in a way never before seen on the Internet.

    B/R 1,000 rankings don't assess who had the best year, or even who has the most potential. Rather, players—in this case, free safeties—are judged on their current skills and mechanics, based on film study of the 2011 NFL preseason and regular season only.

    After hours spent scouting every starter and every potential starter, the top 32 free safeties have been scored on 10 criteria (more on the criteria here). In the slides that follow, we'll explain each player's strengths and weaknesses as the final ranking is revealed.

    Note: Some players lined up at both free and strong safety during the 2011 season. Players were ranked at the position they played most, according to game-tracking done by our friends at ProFootballFocus.com

32. Quinton Carter, Denver Broncos

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    Agility

    7

    Stiff hips and heavy feet keep his score from being higher. 

    Run Defense

    4

    Aggressive, but not always effective.

    Blitz

    4

    Is not a player the team is comfortable blitzing, but needs to show better awareness.

    Range

    5

    Lack of awareness can be exploited by quarterbacks.

    Coverage

    6

    Does a fair job attacking the ball and limiting completions, but Carter can be sought out by quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to challenge him.

    Tackle

    6

    Strong at the point of attack, with good technique and closing speed.

    Ball Skills

    4

    Not standout, but can stay on the ball.

    Speed

    7

    Mostly good here, but can be vulnerable in open space.

    Completion Percentage

    5

    A little slow on the draw.

    Health

    10

    Played in every game during the 2011 season.

    Overall

    58

    Carter is a promising young safety who could be among the most improved at the position in 2012. He's athletic enough, shows good burst in the open field, and is a stud against the run. Keep an eye on him this coming season.

31. Sterling Moore, New England Patriots

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    Agility

    7

    Moore is a good, but not great athlete. Would score higher with better quickness and more fluid movements in space.

    Run Defense

    3

    Will attempt weak arm tackles, but otherwise disappears and looks uninterested in run defense.

    Blitz

    3.5

    Has some ability as a pass-rusher, but don’t expect many takedowns behind the line of scrimmage.

    Range

    6

    Success rate of making plays on the ball could be higher. Tends to get there late.

    Coverage

    5.5

    Grades out above average in coverage, but runs hot and cold. 

    Tackle

    7

    Can be a factor in stopping the run, but would like to see better skills when making attempts in space.

    Ball Skills

    6

    Above average when asked to go get the football, but not a standout.

    Speed

    6

    Adequate. Can be outrun to the corner and has limited speed.

    Completion Percentage

    6

    Moore needs to be a second quicker at reading the ball.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    60

    Sterling Moore played his best in the 2012 playoffs, emerging as the de facto leader of sorts for the New England defense, but the team has made moves to replace him this offseason. Moore would best serve in a nickel or dime role.

30. Sherrod Martin, Carolina Panthers

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    Agility

    8

    A very good athlete, but not quite at that elite level.

    Run Defense

    4

    Could show better effort, and better results, in the run game.  

    Blitz

    4

    Lacks the strength to take on blockers.

    Range

    7

    Shows good change-of-direction skills.

    Coverage

    5

    Martin allows a fair amount of completions, but can be a good player in zone coverage. 

    Tackle

    3

    Rarely able to close in and make a play in the open field.

    Ball Skills

    7

    Had solid pass-defense numbers in 2011, but missed on some opportunities due to limited range. 

    Speed

    8

    Among the faster players at his position. 

    Completion Percentage

    4.5

    Average at finding the football when in zone coverage. Needs to improve reach to interfere with passes in tight man coverage.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    60.5

    Sherrod Martin is an interesting prospect who could develop into something special. As of now, his struggles in attacking the ball—both in air and on the ground—are the major drawbacks to his game.

29. Troy Nolan, Houston Texans

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    Agility

    6

    Needs a shiftier frame and better open-field moves.

    Run Defense

    2

    Can disappear at times against the run. Isn’t the type to take on a back head up.

    Blitz

    8

    A very good pass-rusher, would like to see a little more flexibility in Nolan's hips to turn the corner. 

    Range

    5

    Needs to avoid being looked off by the quarterback.

    Coverage

    6.5

    Can be a difference maker, but has also been exploited at times.

    Tackle

    8.5

    A force against the run, but doesn't always get to the runner in open space.

    Ball Skills

    3.5

    Will make a big play one game, but may disappear for a few after that.

    Speed

    4

    Nolan will find himself out of position and often outrun due to his limitations.

    Completion Percentage

    7.5

    Does a good job breaking on the ball, and can knock down passes, but isn’t quite ready to be a top-tier player. 

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    61

    Nolan played well in a reserve role, and he may be ready to take the next step if given the opportunity. He is a very good open-field tackler, but his limited speed is an issue and severely limits his ability to attack the football.

28. Michael Huff, Oakland Raiders

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    Agility

    9

    Exceptional athlete who shows some slight stiffness when changing direction. 

    Run Defense

    4

    Too often appears timid and shies from contact.

    Blitz

    5.5

    Too easily re-routed by running backs. 

    Range

    7

    Good at changing direction. Being a more aggressive player would improve his score.

    Coverage

    2

    Close to being a bottom-barrel player in coverage. Huff lacks awareness and is slow to react.

    Tackle

    5

    Merely average at finding the ball, dropping his weight and running through the ball-carrier. Could improve with better strength.

    Ball Skills

    6

    Will make a play here and there, but is not a big factor. 

    Speed

    10

    Sprinter-style speed, Huff timed below 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash. 

    Completion Percentage

    4.5

    So-so in zone. Could do a better job reaching for the ball when locked up in man coverage to limit receptions.

    Health

    8

    Huff missed two games due to a groin injury during the 2011 season.

    Overall

    61

    A former top-10 pick, Huff has yet to parlay his speed and agility into a dominant starter's role. He's too timid to be an attacker in coverage, and doesn't show the mean streak needed to intimidate receivers.

27. Kerry Rhodes, Arizona Cardinals

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    Agility

    8

    Could be quicker at changing direction, and more fluid in flipping his hips.

    Run Defense

    6

    A solid run-defender, but will miss tackles you expect a player of Rhodes' caliber to make. 

    Blitz

    8

    Has all the qualities of an athlete who can attack the line, but lacks the agility to be effective when breaking down and chasing a mobile quarterback.

    Range

    5

    Too easily faked out of position.

    Coverage

    2.5

    Not a factor in coverage due to poor awareness and discipline.

    Tackle

    8

    Strong at the point of attack.

    Ball Skills

    3

    Gambles too often, resulting not only in completions, but often in big yardage after the catch. 

    Speed

    7.5

    Very fast, but not always fast enough to be a factor in pursuit.

    Completion Percentage

    7

    Good at preventing completions when he's in position to do so. 

    Health

    6

    Rhodes missed four games due to a foot injury during the 2011 season.

    Overall

    61

    Kerry Rhodes' name carries some weight in NFL circles, but he's no longer the player he used to be. He's also never become the player he could have been without injury. He is a decent starter, but his lack of range and ball skills are a major weakness in the Arizona secondary.

26. David Caldwell, Indianapolis Colts

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    Agility

    9

    Not perfect in changing direction, but still top tier.

    Run Defense

    7

    Must do a better job hitting and wrapping up.

    Blitz

    1

    Not a factor in blitz packages.

    Range

    6

    Caldwell is more likely to get there in time for the tackle, not the interception.

    Coverage

    4

    Can be picked on by good quarterbacks. Is easy to look off and get running away from the target.

    Tackle

    5

    Poor technique and strength.

    Ball Skills

    3.5

    Mistakes lead to opponents' catches, and big yards after. 

    Speed

    9

    Is able to successfully close on the ball at any distance. 

    Completion Percentage

    7

    Does a good job breaking on the ball and breaking up passes. But inconsistent.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    61.5

    Caldwell is a quiet player who the casual fan may not know about. Yet, he has nice overall ability and the potential to improve as he better learns how to read the quarterback.

25. Chris Conte, Chicago Bears

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    Agility

    7

    Not quick or fluid enough for an elite score.

    Run Defense

    3.5

    Will attempt weak arm tackles, but not much else.

    Blitz

    7

    Conte needs to show better awareness and agility to change direction and attack the passer on the blitz.

    Range

    7.5

    Good at changing direction. Struggles to break on run plays and drive on the ball.

    Coverage

    7.5

    Conte is quick to react and has the footwork to make plays on passes. 

    Tackle

    5.5

    Can be a factor in stopping the run, but would be nice to see better skills when making attempts in space.

    Ball Skills

    4.5

    Conte lacks the hands to be an interception guy. Limited range.

    Speed

    6

    Will struggle with his range due to a lack of speed.

    Completion Percentage

    5

    Nothing special in zone or man coverage.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    61.5

    Chris Conte is a classic free safety in that he's most comfortable playing in the box, but his production and raw ability are low. He's a solid rotational player, but not someone the Bears can rely on in coverage.

24. Patrick Chung, New England Patriots

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    Agility

    7

    Not quick enough to reach top tier.

    Run Defense

    6

    Inconsistent, with surprising missed tackles.

    Blitz

    8

    A very good pass-rusher and attacking blitzer.

    Range

    6

    Late recognition at times leads to poor range.

    Coverage

    5

    Doesn’t always keep up with his man.

    Tackle

    6.5

    Chung is a good tackler, but will whiff as well by being too high and not breaking down to take on the ball-carrier.

    Ball Skills

    6

    Doesn't make the big play very often.

    Speed

    7.5

    Pretty fast, but can’t always chase from behind. 

    Completion Percentage

    4

    Quarterbacks may actually look to pick on Chung in coverage. Did a poor job getting between the ball and receiver.

    Health

    6

    Missed a large part of the 2011 regular season with injury.

    Overall

    62

    Chung has very good potential, but he's not yet living up to his billing. He's a big player with good enough speed and blitzing ability to make an impact, but during the 2011 season, Chung wasn't a playmaker.

23. Jamarca Sanford, Minnesota Vikings

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    Agility

    6

    Open-field moves are an area of weakness.

    Run Defense

    7

    Can step up and take on the run game.

    Blitz

    5

    Doesn’t close well on the ball. 

    Range

    7

    Quicker hips and better vision on the ball would improve Sanford's score.

    Coverage

    5.5

    Much better sitting back in a zone than being asked to lock up one on one.

    Tackle

    5.5

    Can flash solid technique, but will duck his head too often.

    Ball Skills

    6

    Not a playmaker.

    Speed

    6.5

    Can be outrun to the corner and doesn't cover a lot of ground.

    Completion Percentage

    5

    Sanford needs to be a second quicker at reading the ball and making his jump on the route.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    63.5

    The former seventh-round pick out of Ole Miss is a guy to keep an eye on. With more experience and better reaction times, Jamarca Sanford will be on the move up in the rankings. A solid, talented player.

22. Amari Spievey, Detroit Lions

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    Agility

    6

    Would be higher with a shiftier frame and better open-field moves. 

    Run Defense

    6

    A solid run-defender, but Spievey will miss tackles you expect a player of his caliber to make. 

    Blitz

    5.5

    Would like to see more aggression at the point of attack. 

    Range

    6.5

    Does everything you’d want to get in position, but Spievey's success rate of making plays on the ball could be higher. 

    Coverage

    7

    Disruptive at times, but inconsistent.

    Tackle

    3.5

    Not good at adapting and getting to a ball-carrier. Needs to keep his head up.

    Ball Skills

    7

    Above average when asked to go get the football.

    Speed

    6.5

    Better than most, but still vulnerable in open space.

    Completion Percentage

    6

    Spievey isn't a weakness in coverage, but he's far from being a lockdown cover man. 

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    64

    Amari Spievey is a middle-of-the-road safety with top-player potential, but it's all up to him. The speed, strength and agility are there. What he does with it in 2012 will be fun to watch.

21. Mike Adams, Cleveland Browns

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    Agility

    7

    There is a lot to like, but he can be heavy-footed at times. 

    Run Defense

    3

    An arm tackler in space.-Not very aggressive. Has to get better here to ever be a long-term option as a starter.

    Blitz

    1

    Useless here.

    Range

    7

    Shows good change-of-direction skills, but not quite quick enough to always keep up.

    Coverage

    8

    Does a good job recognizing routes and keeping himself in position to make a play on the ball. Doesn’t allow many completions when he’s in the area.

    Tackle

    8

    Strong at the point of attack.

    Ball Skills

    6.5

    Good, but not a playmaker.

    Speed

    6

    Pretty good, but nothing special.

    Completion Percentage

    8

    Has very good coverage skills. With quick feet and hips, a higher score is possible in 2012.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    64.5

    Mike Adams had a solid 2011 season on a defense that was much improved, but he could improve. He is at his best in the box, but he is quick enough to drop back in deep coverage. Adams needs to put the athletic ability to better use.

20. Thomas DeCoud, Atlanta Falcons

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    Agility

    7

    A very good overall athlete, but DeCoud shows some stiffness in his lower body.

    Run Defense

    7

    Will attempt weak arm tackles, but otherwise has the skills to make an impact. 

    Blitz

    5.5

    Has the speed and quickness to press off the edge, but lacks the strength to take on blockers. Must do a better job finding the quarterback and giving chase while under control.

    Range

    7

    Often a step late.

    Coverage

    6

    Not always on the ball.

    Tackle

    6

    Will revert to reaching for the runner instead of putting himself in good position.

    Ball Skills

    7.5

    More than adequate, but doesn't make enough big plays.

    Speed

    6.5

    Range is inhibited by lack of elite wheels.

    Completion Percentage

    3

    DeCoud needs to anticipate far better than he does.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    65.5

    Thomas DeCoud is a solid, wave player at the safety position, but he's a good enough athlete to be starting. Atlanta likes quick safeties with range, and while DeCoud is quick, his range is discounted by his inability to stay in position and react to the ball.

19. O.J. Atogwe, Washington Redskins

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    Agility

    7

    Not quite fluid enough.

    Run Defense

    3

    Often a no-show.

    Blitz

    7

    Atogwe has some ability as a pass-rusher.

    Range

    7

    Not quite enough range to make the big plays.

    Coverage

    7.5

    Runs hot and cold.

    Tackle

    8

    Can be a factor in stopping the run, as Atogwe shows good skills when making attempts in space.

    Ball Skills

    7.5

    On the ball, but doesn't actually get it often enough.

    Speed

    6

    Above-average speed, but this is not an area of strength.

    Completion Percentage

    3.5

    Not a great player when in single coverage. Will give up completions in chunks. Atogwe needs to be a second quicker at reading the ball and making his jump on the route.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011. 

    Overall

    66.5

    O.J. Atogwe has bounced around the NFL the last two seasons, but he's still a quality safety. His awareness and tackling skills would be ideal for a team needing a nickel safety, or even a more traditional in-the-box player.

18. Usama Young, Cleveland Browns

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    Agility

    9

    Exceptional athlete who shows the balance and quickness to be elite in space. Can change direction on the fly.

    Run Defense

    8

    A good inside/out tackler who has the range and speed to find the ball and attack at an angle. Young miss a few, and can struggle to chase at times, but is very solid.

    Blitz

    4

    Has the speed and quickness to press off the edge, but lacks the strength to take on blockers.

    Range

    6

    Has the ability to reach the right position, but doesn't always execute.

    Coverage

    4.5

    A lack of awareness is really evident here.

    Tackle

    8.5

    Doesn’t make many mistakes.

    Ball Skills

    5

    Not an interception or passes-defensed leader.

    Speed

    8

    Young is among the faster players at free safety.  

    Completion Percentage

    4

    Will give up too many completions when in man coverage. 

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    67

    Usama Young is a premier athlete, but he doesn't always show up big in coverage. He is much better coming up to attack the ball than when asked to fade into deep thirds or quarters coverage.

17. Joe Lefeged, Indianapolis Colts

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    Agility

    9

    A top-level athlete who stands apart from the crowd. A rare talent in terms of balance, quickness and change of direction.

    Run Defense

    6

    A solid run-defender, but will miss tackles you expect a player of his caliber to make. 

    Blitz

    1

    Lefeged will rarely be used to attack the backfield.

    Range

    8

    Shows very good range. Has no trouble extending 10 yards once the play is read to break up a pass or shut down the run.

    Coverage

    7.5

    A nice coverage safety, and perhaps underrated, Lefeged is quick to react and has the footwork to make plays on the ball.

    Tackle

    4

    Would like to see improvement here, as too many attempts are arm tackles or the big “kill shot” that results in fines and missed tackles.

    Ball Skills

    6

    Above average when asked to go get the football. 

    Speed

    9

    Has legit 4.4-4.45 speed on film. 

    Completion Percentage

    7

    Does a good job breaking on the ball. On the verge of being elite. 

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    67.5

    As an undrafted free agent who ended up playing a lot at strong safety in 2011, Joe Lefeged was a pleasant surprise for the Colts. He's shown good range and top-notch speed, but to date he's been a poor blitzer and poor tackler. He needs to become a better all-around player before he can be considered in the top half of his position.

16. Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Agility

    8

    There are few flaws to note, but quickness is one. 

    Run Defense

    9

    Not afraid to lower his shoulder and jump into the hole, Clark is among the best in the game at shutting down the run.

    Blitz

    5

    May be overrated here due to reputation, but film study shows average results.

    Range

    5.5

    Has average closing speed, and could benefit from better flexibility to quickly flip his hips and run.

    Coverage

    7.5

    Strong enough to play in press coverage, there aren’t many quarterbacks who successfully challenge Clark.

    Tackle

    7.5

    Strong at the point of attack, but doesn’t have elite technique.

    Ball Skills

    5

    Will make a play here and there.

    Speed

    3

    Speed isn’t a strength for Clark; he relies on instincts and technique.

    Completion Percentage

    8

    Clark has very good coverage skills. Does a good job in jam situations.

    Health

    9.5

    An interesting case. Clark cannot play in the high altitude of Mile High Stadium in Denver due to sickle-cell anemia. As such, he missed the Steelers' playoff loss to the Broncos.

    Overall

    68

    Playing opposite Troy Polamalu is no easy task, but Clark holds his own. His limited athletic ability is an issue, but Clark's reputation against the run and as a hard hitter is well deserved.

15. Dwight Lowery, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    Agility

    7

    Would score higher with better quickness and more fluid movements in space.

    Run Defense

    3

    Has to get better here to ever be a long-term option as a starter.

    Blitz

    10

    Among the best in the game at coming off the edge to disrupt the backfield. Has the quickness to close on the ball. Very good vision in space.

    Range

    7

    Adjusts on the fly to get in position.

    Coverage

    5

    Lowery allows a fair amount of completions, but can be a good player in coverage. Much better sitting back in a zone than being asked to lock up one on one.

    Tackle

    5

    Merely average at finding the ball and making the play. A little on the weak side.

    Ball Skills

    6

    Adequate, but nothing special as a playmaker.

    Speed

    7

    Effective speed, but can't be expected to catch runners from behind.

    Completion Percentage

    8

    Getting close to the top of the NFL, Lowery has very good coverage skills and the range to be a factor.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    68

    A quality overall safety, Dwight Lowery's stock could soar if he were used more in the box and less in deep coverage. He has the athletic ability and skill to dominate in blitz packages, but wasn't used enough in that role in 2011.

14. Jim Leonhard, New York Jets

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    Agility

    9

    Exceptional athlete who has the burst and acceleration we love. Leonhard is a terror in the open field.

    Run Defense

    4

    Not a player offenses scheme around. His lack of elite size and strength is a factor, as he doesn't come off blocks well.

    Blitz

    6

    Is a player the team is comfortable blitzing, but needs to show better awareness and agility to change direction and attack the passer.

    Range

    7

    Has the speed in the open field to make plays on the ball consistently. Shows very good burst to get from Point A to Point B.

    Coverage

    8

    There’s a lot to like here. Leonhard has the speed to turn and run with receivers. Does a good job recognizing routes and keeping himself in position to make a play on the ball. 

    Tackle

    4

    Not strong enough to break down the open field and make a play on the carrier. Will miss a handful of tackles.

    Ball Skills

    5

    Just adequate.

    Speed

    9

    Is able to successfully close on the ball at most any distance. 

    Completion Percentage

    7.5

    Does a good job breaking on the ball, and can break up passes.

    Health

    9

    Suffered a knee injury in mid-December and was lost for the rest of the year.

    Overall

    68.5

    A great contributor on special teams and in the secondary, Jim Leonhard's lack of size is masked by top-tier athleticism. He's a blur in the open field and has the aggressive type of play that fits perfectly with the free safety position.

13. Danieal Manning, Houston Texans

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    Agility

    8

    Can do it all, almost.

    Run Defense

    6

    Inconsistent, but capable of excellence.

    Blitz

    6

    Will be sent in, but Manning doesn't demonstrate the agility to change direction and attack the passer.

    Range

    7

    Able to switch directions and get to the ball.

    Coverage

    5

    Allows a fair amount of completions. Not bad in a zone.

    Tackle

    10

    A pure wrap-up tackler who isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder and disconnect carrier from ball. The best in the game at the safety position.

    Ball Skills

    5

    Not a difference-maker.

    Speed

    7

    Can’t always catch from behind. 

    Completion Percentage

    7

    Can get on the ball and break up plays.

    Health

    8

    Missed three games with a foot injury during 2011 season.

    Overall

    69

    The Abilene Christian alum was a big part of the Houston Texans' division title in 2011, and the turnaround of their defense. Manning's range and playmaking set the tone for the secondary, and allowed Johnathan Joseph to make plays on the ball with help over the top.

12. Matt Giordano, Oakland Raiders

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    Agility

    7

    Stiffness, lack of quickness are drawbacks.

    Run Defense

    2

    Will attempt weak arm tackles, but that's about it. 

    Blitz

    7

    Giordano has some ability as a pass-rusher, but doesn't end up with many sacks.

    Range

    7

    Is more likely to get there in time for the tackle, not the interception.

    Coverage

    7.5

    Capable of the big play, but also of giving one up.

    Tackle

    4

    Can be a factor in stopping the run, but would like to see better skills when making attempts in space.

    Ball Skills

    8

    Well above average, if rarely spectacular.

    Speed

    7

    Can be outrun to the corner, but overall quite good.

    Completion Percentage

    10

    Giordano was among the best in the NFL, according to ProFootballFocus.com, at limiting completion percentage on passes thrown his way. 

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    69.5

    If there were a Matt Giordano fan club, I'd be a member. Giordano is an up-and-comer in the NFL, with very good coverage skills and overall ability. As a blitzer and coverage safety, he's close to breaking into the top 10.

11. Morgan Burnett, Green Bay Packers

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    Agility

    8

    On the verge of elite.

    Run Defense

    3

    His major weakness. Doesn't seem to be a point of emphasis for Burnett.

    Blitz

    8.5

    Does a great job closing on the ball. Has the quickness, strength and fire to attack the quarterback.

    Range

    7

    Shows good change-of-direction skills. Could be quicker.

    Coverage

    6

    Okay in coverage, but vulnerable.

    Tackle

    7

    Can be a factor in stopping the run, but needs to improve in the open field.

    Ball Skills

    7

    Doesn't shine here, but dependable.

    Speed

    9

    Has the speed to be a factor in pursuit.

    Completion Percentage

    5.5

    Burnett doesn't get on top of routes.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    71

    Was asked to step in when Nick Collins went down with injury, and didn't disappoint. Showing a nice range of skills, Burnett has impressive potential and is worthy of much more recognition.

10. Michael Griffin, Tenessee Titans

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    Agility

    8

    Has quick feet and good change-of-direction skills. Very quick.

    Run Defense

    5

    Not great, and not horrible. Will make tackles in the run game, but also misses too many and will be left hugging air at times. 

    Blitz

    6

    Makes a go of it, but not always effectively. 

    Range

    8

    Shows very good range. Griffin has no trouble extending 10 yards once the play is read to break up a pass or shut down the run.

    Coverage

    8

    Has the speed to turn and run with receivers. Does a good job recognizing routes and keeping himself in position to make a play on the ball. Doesn’t allow many completions when he’s in the area.

    Tackle

    5

    Needs to hit the weight room.

    Ball Skills

    7

    Dropped a few could-be interceptions, but highly capable.

    Speed

    8

    Excellent burst at the snap, but not elite straight-line speed. Would put Griffin in the high-4.4 range. There aren’t many players he can’t catch.

    Completion Percentage

    6.5

    On the rise.  

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    71.5

    The Titans valued Michael Griffin enough to make him their franchise player, over cornerback Cortland Finnegan. Griffin didn't have a great 2011 by his own standards, but he's still a very good all-around safety. His athletic ability shines, and his range and coverage are among the best in the NFL.

9. Reggie Nelson, Cincinnati Bengals

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    Agility

    7

    Not as quick or fluid as the top guys.

    Run Defense

    7

    Can be late to the party. Doesn’t always attack the ball and can be slow to diagnose.

    Blitz

    7

    Does the right things, but doesn't actually get to the quarterback enough.

    Range

    8

    Shows very good range. Has no trouble covering 10 yards once the play is read to make a play on the pass or rush.

    Coverage

    7.5

    A nice coverage safety, and perhaps underrated, Nelson is quick to react and has the footwork to make plays on the ball.

    Tackle

    5

    Can struggle finding the ball and isn't strong enough.

    Ball Skills

    7

    Mostly good, but nothing special.

    Speed

    8

    Probably would run a high 4.4 in the 40-yard dash. 

    Completion Percentage

    5.5

    Above-average numbers in 2011, but needs more football smarts to get to receivers in time.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011. 

    Overall

    72

    Reggie Nelson has battled the "bust" label early in his career, but the former Florida Gator star is becoming one of the best free safeties in the NFL. His combination of run defense, blitzing and coverage ability make him a player to keep an eye on in 2012.

8. Nate Allen, Philadelphia Eagles

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    Agility

    8

    There are few flaws to note, but Allen could be quicker at changing direction, and more fluid in flipping his hips.

    Run Defense

    7

    Played much better down the stretch in 2011 than early in the season. 

    Blitz

    5

    Is easy to block.

    Range

    7

    Changes direction effectively.

    Coverage

    7.5

    Has the speed to turn and run with receivers. Smart.

    Tackle

    7.5

    Is aggressive and strong at the point of attack. Has very good instincts.

    Ball Skills

    6

    He’s good, but not a playmaker.

    Speed

    6.5

    Generally does the job, but vulnerable going to the corner.

    Completion Percentage

    9

    One of the best in the NFL at shutting down the passing game, Allen is extremely underrated as a coverage safety. Especially in man coverage. Allen allowed the third fewest receptions per targets in the entire NFL.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011. 

    Overall

    73.5

    One of the best young safeties in the NFL, Allen (and his counterpart Kurt Coleman) received far too much blame for the Eagles' struggles in 2011. Those who watched Allen closely saw a safety with elite ability to deflect and disrupt the ball in flight.

7. Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers

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    Agility

    8

    A very good athlete, but not quite at that elite level. Has good change-of-direction ability, and the quickness to explode to the ball.

    Run Defense

    6

    Not as consistent as you'd expect for a player of his caliber.

    Blitz

    5

    Would like to see more aggression at the point of attack. Goldson is too easily deterred by running backs.

    Range

    9

    Is able to chew up yards when going to the football, with very good closing speed. Like a great center fielder, he will sit back and read the ball, before attacking. It’s a rush to watch him operate in space.

    Coverage

    8

    Strong enough to play in press coverage, there aren’t many quarterbacks who successfully challenge Goldson. 

    Tackle

    7.5

    Can be a factor in stopping the run, but would like to see better skills when making attempts in space.

    Ball Skills

    10

    Goldson's six interceptions in 2011 were good for second among safeties. He has a great ability to track the football and leap for the key interception.

    Speed

    6.5

    Above-average speed, but this is not an area of strength.

    Completion Percentage

    5

    Goldson gives up a fair number of completions when he's not intercepting the ball.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    75

    Goldson is a tale of two players. There is the guy who pulled down six interceptions, and was a key star on a very good defense. But then there's the guy who misses way too many tackles. If Goldson were a better open-field tackler, his 2011 season would have ranked as the best in the game.

6. Kenny Phillips, New York Giants

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    Agility

    8

    A top-level athlete with the speed, body control and balance to explode to the ball and make game-changing plays.

    Run Defense

    6

    Can be a factor, but isn’t consistent due to deep-coverage assignments.

    Blitz

    3

    A borderline pass-rusher. May be used, but shouldn’t be expected to generate much pressure off the edge.

    Range

    9

    Has the vision to drop back deep and read the play. Phillips has the speed to read and react, closing on the football in a hurry.

    Coverage

    9

    Phillips allowed just 20 receptions all year, and was targeted 42 times. Quarterbacks respect his ability to take away tight ends and running backs.

    Tackle

    6.5

    Not great in space.

    Ball Skills

    9

    Phillips pulled down four interceptions in 2011, good for third best among safeties. He also had five pass defenses in the regular season.

    Speed

    8

    Excellent burst at the snap, but not elite straight-line speed. Still, he can catch most anyone.

    Completion Percentage

    8

    Phillips allowed less than half of the passes thrown his way to be completed in games we charted. He's able to separate the receiver from the ball, and has the length to get in and make plays.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011. 

    Overall

    76.5

    Phillips is an elite playmaker in the Giants secondary. His range and coverage skills make him one of the best in the game. Overshadowed at times by a star-studded defense, Phillips is an all-pro caliber player.

5. Malcolm Jenkins, New Orleans Saints

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    Agility

    8

    A very good athlete, Jenkins has the speed, burst and strength to be an elite safety.

    Run Defense

    5

    Not great, and not horrible. Will make tackles in the run game, but also misses too many and will be left hugging air at times. 

    Blitz

    9

    When the quarterback sees Jenkins coming on a blitz, an audible or protection change will be called. Is a threat to get to the backfield and make plays.

    Range

    7

    A little slow to react, but otherwise stellar.

    Coverage

    9

    An elite coverage safety, Jenkins does a great job closing on the ball and breaking up passes. A big factor in jamming and covering up tight ends.

    Tackle

    6

    Is a good tackler, but will whiff as well by being too high and not breaking down to take on the ball-carrier.

    Ball Skills

    8

    Can go up and get the football, and has a good skill set to separate the ball from a receiver.

    Speed

    8

    Fast off the snap and can catch most players.

    Completion Percentage

    9

    Does a very nice job in coverage, better than expected even. Can be a factor at knocking down passes, intercepting the ball, and limiting the chances a quarterback will take.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011. 

    Overall

    79

    A true do-it-all safety, the Saints' first-round pick in '09 is building a reputation as a hitter, coverage man and ace blitzer. Jenkins has the ideal combination of speed and strength, and is an underrated player in coverage.

4. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks

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    Agility

    10

    A great all-around athlete. Thomas does a great job in space and has the quickness GMs love.

    Run Defense

    10

    A lockdown tackler who lives around the football. Has the speed and instincts to quickly attack the ball.

    Blitz

    7

    Doesn't get to the quarterback enough to reach the highest level.

    Range

    9

    A quarterback for the defense, he will sit back and read the ball and then attack. Has elite speed and instincts to make a change of direction.

    Coverage

    6

    Does a fair job attacking the ball and limiting completions, but can be sought out by quarterbacks who aren’t afraid to challenge him.

    Tackle

    6

    Technique lets him down at times when he doesn't stay low.

    Ball Skills

    7

    Thomas doesn't post elite numbers, but he's always around the ball. As teams go away from him more and more, he will have to reach to make plays on the ball, which can result in more blown coverages.

    Speed

    10

    Timed below 4.40 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Plays as fast as he times.

    Completion Percentage

    4

    Will give up too many completions when in man coverage. Lack of size (5'10") is an issue, and quarterbacks know it.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011.

    Overall

    79

    Just 22, Earl Thomas is one of the top young players in the NFL, at any position. The former Longhorns star is incredibly fast and athletic, but brings a punch in run support and has the range to attack the field at all points.

3. Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills

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    Agility

    8

    Has top-level natural strength and balance.

    Run Defense

    7

    Doesn’t always attack the ball and can be slow to diagnose when dropping into his backpedal.

    Blitz

    8

    Has all the qualities of an athlete who can attack the line, but needs to improve his tackling in the open field. Byrd added one sack and two pressures in 2011.

    Range

    9

    Is able to chew up yards to get to the right place. Has very good closing speed.

    Coverage

    9

    Byrd excels at keeping quarterbacks from targeting his player in coverage. Was thrown at just 33 times in 2011.

    Tackle

    9

    A clean tackler who doesn’t let many players get by him, Byrd can take down guys in the open field without issue. Very few mistakes.

    Ball Skills

    8

    Can go up and get the football, and has a good skill set to separate the defender from the ball. 

    Speed

    7

    Would hit the low-4.5 range if he were to run a 40-yard dash today.

    Completion Percentage

    8

    Byrd has very good coverage skills and range. Does a good job of breaking up passes thrown his way.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011. 

    Overall

    83

    A ball hawk who flies around the field making plays, Byrd has been an impact player in the Bills secondary since being drafted in '09. His three interceptions and seven passes defensed in 2011 were a huge part of the team's defensive success.

2. Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens

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    Agility

    10

    A rare athlete, Reed has impressive initial quickness. Once he diagnoses a play, he's there in a flash.

    Run Defense

    7

    Struggled at times against the run in 2011, notably against San Diego. He's being used more and more in deep coverage, where he's not asked to be a factor in the box.

    Blitz

    8

    With athletic ability like Reed's, getting to the quarterback is almost natural. He's not great at disengaging from blockers, but has the tools to get to the passer.

    Range

    10

    Has legendary range. Is able to get from Point A to Point B without missing a step. Rarely does he "guess" wrong on where the ball is going. A highly intelligent player.

    Coverage

    10

    Teams targeted Reed just 37 times in 2011, speaking to his reputation as a playmaker.

    Tackle

    7

    Will miss tackles in space if he comes in too high. For all his greatness, Reed is just slightly above average as a tackler.

    Ball Skills

    10

    Reed may be the best ever in this category, and his 2011 season was still elite. He's a constant threat to either intercept the ball or, at the very least, knock it down. Seems to live around the ball.

    Speed

    8

    He has slowed down since his college days at The U, but he's still fast enough to compete at a very high level.

    Completion Percentage

    7.5

    Will give up completions, but is always around the ball. Allowed 19 catches in 2011.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011, but does fight off small injuries.

    Overall

    87.5

    Let the outrage begin. Reed is a sure-fire Hall of Famer and deserves major credit for advancing the game, but his 2011 season (which is what we're grading on) showed regressed skills. Reed's speed is not what it used to be, and his ability to stop the run has never been elite. Reed was and is great, but he's no longer the top free safety in the NFL.

1. Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers

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    Agility

    9

    Exceptional athlete who is naturally strong. Weddle's first step is insanely fast.

    Run Defense

    7

    Weddle does a nice job sticking his nose in the box, but he's a deep safety, and the Chargers know it. He's rarely used for coming up and stuffing the run, but when he is, you can expect an impact to be made.

    Blitz

    7

    Not asked to go get the quarterback often, as he is more valuable in coverage. He did tally two quarterback pressures in 2011.

    Range

    10

    The best in the game at either safety position. Weddle flies all over the field and makes plays in places few safeties can reach while the ball is in flight.

    Coverage

    10

    Rarely challenged these days, at a rate of 1.6 times per game based on 2011 game charting. Quarterbacks know he's dangerous, and his ability to stick in the pocket of targets keeps passers from challenging him.

    Tackle

    8

    A good inside/out tackler who has the range and speed to find the ball and attack at an angle. Will miss a few, and can struggle to chase at times, but is very solid.

    Ball Skills

    10

    Weddle is a player who is always around the ball. Whether it’s an interception, a pass breakup or a tackle right after the catch, he’s always there.

    Speed

    9

    Is able to successfully close on the ball at any distance. Has the speed to be a factor in pursuit.

    Completion Percentage

    10

    Weddle allowed the lowest percentage of completed passes (targets vs. completions) of any starting safety in the NFL—just over 40 percent.

    Health

    10

    Did not miss a game with injury in 2011. 

    Overall

    90

    The NFL's best free safety, Weddle led all safeties in interceptions, and was second in completion percentage allowed. No player in the game breaks on the ball better from the safety position, and Weddle is a finisher who can tackle and make the interception. The San Diego Charger is a rare talent.

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