Ranking the Top 10 Strong Safeties in NFL History

Adam LazarusSenior Analyst IMarch 23, 2012

Ranking the Top 10 Strong Safeties in NFL History

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    Safety is perhaps the most aptly-named position in all of sports. 

    Often times, their sole task is to be the last line of defense for a, well...defense, in both the running game and passing game.

    And while the roles are often hard to define, free safeties and strong safeties have largely different responsibilities and often employ largely different skill sets.

    Strong safeties usually play a much more aggressive role near the line of scrimmage and pick up running backs or tight ends over the middle of the field.

    This list honors the 10 men who have best fulfilled the tasks of a strong safety throughout the course of NFL history. 

No. 10: Rodney Harrison

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    Career: 1994-2008 

    Teams: San Diego Chargers, New England Patriots

    Achievements: two Super Bowls, two-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro

    Remember, this isn't a list of greatest broadcasters...

    Intimidation was key for Harrison, as he often racked up fines and late-hit, unnecessary roughness penalties, but he too was a multi-talented safety who punished receivers across the middle of the field or running backs who met him in the hole.

    For a strong safety, he collected a remarkable number of picks (34), tackles (twice he recorded more than 100 in a single season) and forced fumbles (15). But his greatest stat has to be the 30.5 sacks he nabbed. 

    Together, those numbers make him one of the most complete defensive backs in the modern era. 

No. 9: Donnie Shell

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    Career: 1974-87

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers

    Achievements: four Super Bowls, five-time Pro Bowler, three-time All-Pro

    Any list of greatest defenders in NFL history will feature a handful of players from the Steelers dynasty of the 1970s, whether it's Mean Joe Green, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham or Mel Blount.

    But one of the men most often overlooked is The Torpedo.

    He'll never earn a place in the Hall of Fame (I doubt the voters have the stomach to let in another Steelers from the era), but Shell was a tremendous hitter for that team, especially over the middle. And his 51 interceptions ranks second in team history only to Mel Blount. 

No. 8: Carnell Lake

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    Career: 1989-2001

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers, Jacksonville Jaguars, Baltimore Ravens

    Achievements: five-time Pro Bowler, one-time All Pro

    Clearly the Steelers have a rich tradition of strong safeties, as you'll see throughout this slideshow.

    Lake may be best remembered for switching to cornerback in 1995 to relieve the season-ending injury to Rod Woodson, but just about every other year of his career was a clinic in playing the position of strong safety. 

    For Bill Cowher and Dick LeBeau, Lake was the quarterback of Pittsburgh's Blitzburgh defense that became an annual Super Bowl contender.

    And although hard hits weren't his trademark like several of his colleagues on this list, he was almost never out of place and turned himself into a tremendous ball-hawk. 

No. 7: Tim McDonald

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    Career: 1987-99

    Teams: St. Louis/Phoenix Cardinals, San Francisco 49ers

    Achievements: One Super Bowl, six-time Pro Bowler, six-time All-Pro

    No, McDonald's greatest legacy and contribution to the world of sports was not being the inspiration for Rod Tidwell (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Jerry Maguire. 

    Although lost for several years in the desert, as a member of the Cardinals, McDonald eventually wandered out of Phoenix and into San Francisco, i.e. a winning franchise.

    McDonald become the enforcer of that 49ers defense and displayed a knack for the big play: he scored three touchdowns in a 10-game stretch between 1994 and 1995. 

No. 6: LeRoy Butler

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    Career: 1990-2001

    Teams: Green Bay Packers

    Achievements: one Super Bowl, four-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro

    The Packers of the 1990s were defined by two players: Brett Favre and Reggie White.

    But after those two clear icons of the game and the city, the next most important player was their great strong safety, LeRoy Butler.

    He always seemed to be in the right place, whether it was nabbing an interception (38), picking up a fumble or forcing one.

    Still, it was his durability and leadership that made him a member of the 1990s All-Decade team and a 2007 member of the Packer Hall of Fame...well, inventing the Lambeau Leap certainly helped. 

No. 5: Darren Woodson

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    Career: 1992-2004

    Teams: Dallas Cowboys

    Achievements: three Super Bowls, five-time Pro Bowler, four-time All Pro

    As great as Deion Sanders and Charles Haley were, there's a case to be made that the greatest defender of the Cowboys 1990s dynasty was their strong safety, Darren Woodson, and not just because Woodson was a Cowboy from start to finish.

    Woodson did everything from help out over the middle against Jerry Rice and Sterling Sharpe, to bringing down Barry Sanders and even rushing Brett Favre.

    And being the all-time leading tackler in the history of the Dallas Cowboys clinches his place here and eventually, Canton. 

No. 4: John Lynch

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    Career: 1993-2007

    Teams: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Denver Broncos

    Achievements: one Super Bowl, nine-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro

    Of all the safeties on this list, and perhaps of all the strong safeties in the history of the game, none had a better reputation for hard hitting and intimidation than Lynch.

    He certainly peaked during his time in Tampa Bay, where the middle of that Tony Dungy/Monte Kiffin defense (Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks) was one of the finest in NFL history. But in Denver, Lynch proved to be more than just a system player who took advantage of the greatness that surrounded him.

    With the Broncos, he continued to be a Pro Bowler, always reliable in coverage, against the run and even in certain blitzing situations. 

No. 3: Dennis Smith

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    Career: 1981-94

    Teams: Denver Broncos 

    Achievements: Six-time Pro Bowler

    Up until this point, every member of this list owns a Super Bowl ring. But on the other hand, each of those strong safeties also had the luxury of playing next to a future Hall-of-Famer.

    Harrison had Junior Seau and Ty Law, Shell had Blount, Lamber, Ham and Greene; Lake had Rod Woodson, Butler had Reggie White, Woodson and McDonald both had Deion Sanders; Lynch had Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp.

    Now I'm not saying that the Broncos of the late 1980s and early 1990s were lacking in defensive talent. They had Steve Atwater and Karl Mecklenberg. But Dennis Smith was nearly as critical to those Broncos teams' success as John Elway.

    He was as active a strong safety, especially against the run and opposing studs (he played greats like Marcus Allen, Bo Jackson, Christian Okoye and Curt Warner twice a season), as the game has ever seen. And the 30 interceptions that he recorded are proof that he was just as solid in coverage. 

No. 2: Ken Houston

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    Career: 1967-80

    Teams: Houston Oilers, Washington Redskins

    Achievements: 12-time Pro Bowler

    Easily one of the most overlooked and forgotten greats in the history of the pro game, Houston redefined the position in the late 1960s. 

    A ninth-round draft choice, he caught on with the AFL's Oilers and was forced to suffer through plenty of lousy teams before winding up with a contender in Washington. 

    And although he was just as versatile as any of the other strong safeties on this list, Houston's greatest skill came after he used his remarkable instincts to pick off an opposing passer or scooped up a fumble. In his first five seasons with the Oilers, he scored an incredible 10 defensive touchdowns. 

No. 1: Troy Polamalu

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    Career: 2003-present

    Teams: Pittsburgh Steelers

    Achievements: two Super Bowls, 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, seven-time pro bowler, five-time All Pro

    Today's NFL represents a golden age for offenses, and specifically passing offenses, so strong safeties these days have to be bigger, better, smarter, quicker and faster than at any previous time in history. 

    That means there's a case to be made that the best strong safety (or free safety, or cornerback) in today's game is the best ever. Ken Houston, Donnie Shell, not even John Lynch had to play in an era where 4,000 yards passing was almost commonplace. 

    And since Polamalu is easily the best strong safety in today's game (Ed Reed is a free safety), he deserves this entry.

    He is a ferocious tackler, great defending the pass, better defending the run and a fine blitzer.

    But more than anything, one thing makes him a clear-cut Hall-of-Famer. No one in the game has instincts like his.