Ranking the Top 10 Free Safeties in NFL History

Matt SteinCorrespondent IIMarch 25, 2012

Ranking the Top 10 Free Safeties in NFL History

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    Free safeties in the NFL are generally the most athletic players in the secondary. They're expected to hit hard, but also need to be nimble enough to make plays across the entire field

    Throughout the history of the league, we've seen some truly special safeties come and go. From Darren Sharper, to Willie Wood and Ed Reed, the NFL has had their fair share of game-changing safeties.

    Here are the top ten free safeties in NFL history.

10. Eugene Robinson

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    Accomplishments: 3x Pro Bow, 2x All-Pro Team, 1x Super Bowl Champion

    While Eugene Robinson played a solid career for the Seattle Seahawks for the first 11 seasons he was in the NFL, he really made his mark in his final years with the Green Bay Packers and Atlanta Falcons.

    In his first year with the Packers, Robinson led the team with eight interceptions and was a vital part to them making the Super Bowl in 1996. He'd go on to play in two more Super Bowls, one with Green Bay and one with Atlanta, but his teams came up short in both those games.

    Robinson finished his impressive career with the Carolina Panthers during the 2000 season. He currently ranks fifth in all-time interceptions.

9. Jake Scott

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    Accomplishments: 5x Pro Bowl, 5x All-Pro Team, 2x Super Bowl Champion, 1x Super Bowl MVP

    While the undefeated 1972 season by the Miami Dolphins is usually remembered for their offense, Jake Scott was actually the MVP of Super Bowl VII thanks to his two interceptions.

    Scott was a unique athlete who was extremely dangerous with the ball in his hands due to the fact that he split time as a punt returner. He always seemed to be around the football, a fact that is evident by his record two fumble recoveries in Super Bowl games.

    Even though his career only lasted nine years, Scott made a lasting impact on the NFL with his play-making ability.

8. Yale Lary

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    Accomplishments: 9x Pro Bowl, 9x All-Pro Team, 1950s NFL All-Decade Team

    As the oldest player on this list, Yale Lary really set the bar for the rest of the free safeties in NFL history.

    Lary played the center-field role in the Detroit Lions' defense beautifully. He finished his career with 50 interceptions, which was an NFL record when he finally retired in 1964. When you consider the shortened schedule that was played back then, that number of career interceptions becomes even more remarkable.

    Lary was also one of the better punters in the league over the course of his career.

7. Steve Atwater

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    Accomplishments: 8x Pro Bowl, 3x All-Pro Team, 2x Super Bowl Champion, 1990s NFL All-Decade Team

    Steve Atwater might have played a shorter career than most, but his impact was felt immensely by the Denver Broncos. 

    Drafted in the first round of the 1989 NFL draft, Atwater became an instant starter for a struggled Broncos' defense. In just his second year in the league, Atwater had established himself as one of the better safeties in the NFL. He made the first of seven straight Pro Bowls.

    He was the defensive leader for the Broncos when they won back-to-back Super Bowls, and the victory in Super Bowl XXXIII was the last with the team. He played one more season with the New York Jets before retiring completely from the NFL.

6. Darren Sharper

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    Accomplishments: 5x Pro Bowl, 6x All-Pro Team, 1x Super Bowl Champion, 2000s NFL All-Decade Team

    Few safeties have made a bigger impact with the ball in their hands than Darren Sharper. This is evident thanks to his 11 interceptions returned for touchdowns, which is second in NFL history.

    Sharper started his career with the Green Bay Packers as a second-round pick in the 1997 NFL draft. However, Sharper didn't really have a breakout season until 2000, which is when he made his first career Pro Bowl. He'd make another Pro Bowl during the 2002 season and was eventually released in 2005.

    Sharper went on to play for the Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints, having productive careers with both. During the 2009 season with New Orleans, Sharper broke the NFL record for most interception return yards in a season with 376 yards.

    He retired after the following season as with the sixth most career interceptions.

5. Paul Krause

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    Accomplishments: 8x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro Team, NFL Record Holder for Career Interceptions

    From the instant that Paul Krause stepped on the field for the Washington Redskins, it was evident that he was a special player. He recorded a ridiculous 12 interceptions during his rookie year.

    However, his play really took off once he was traded to the Minnesota Vikings before the 1968 season. Following that trade, Krause made six straight Pro Bowls and was voted to the All-Pro Team in seven of the next eight seasons.

    He finished his career with 81 interceptions, a record that has stood for over 30 years.

4. Larry Wilson

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    Accomplishments: 8x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro Team, NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, 1960s NFL All-Decade Team, 1970s NFL All-Decade Team

    As one of the greatest draft steals of all time, Larry Wilson wasn't drafted until the seventh round of the 1960 NFL draft. Even though he was originally drafted as a cornerback, the Arizona Cardinals made the wise decision of moving him to free safety early in his career.

    After that move, Wilson would go on to be a staple on both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro rosters. He became one of the first safeties in NFL history to be used frequently on blitz packages. His ability to make plays all over the field resulted in him ending his career with 52 interceptions.

    Few players were able to fire up their teams as much as Wilson was, who is widely regarded by many as one of the top leaders to ever play on the field.

3. Willie Wood

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    Accomplishments: 8x Pro Bowl, 7x All-Pro Team, 2x Super Bowl Champion, 1960s NFL All-Decade Team

    While being a two-time Super Bowl champion may not seem like much, Willie Wood was also part of the Green Bay Packers' teams that won three NFL championship games that took place before the Super Bowl was even around.

    He started 12-straight seasons at free safety for Green Bay, and established himself as one of the best in the league at that position. His elite athleticism and speed is what made him such a valuable player to the Packers.

    Not only did he play free safety, but Wood also finished his career with over 1,000 punt return yards. He was the defensive leader of some of the greatest overall teams to ever play the game.

2. Ed Reed

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    Accomplishments: 8x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro Team, 1x NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award, 2000s NFL All-Decade Team

    As the only active player on this list, Ed Reed could finish his career as the greatest free safety to ever play the game if he continues to play at such a high level. For now, Reed will have to be pleased being the second-best free safety in NFL history.

    Since Reed entered the season as a late first-round pick during the 2002 NFL draft, he proved to be one of the best defensive players in the league. He would make his first Pro Bowl the following season, an honor he has receiver in eight of the last nine seasons.

    Few players are as dynamic with the ball in their hands than Reed is. He has 1,463 career interception return yards and holds the NFL record with an 109-yard interception returned for a touchdown.

    While Reed has yet to win a Super Bowl, it doesn't take away from his overall greatness as a player.


1. Ronnie Lott

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    Accomplishments: 10x Pro Bowl, 8x All-Pro Team, 4x Super Bowl Champion, NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, 1980s All-Decade Team, 1990s All-Decade Team

    Even though Ronnie Lott spent time during his career as a cornerback and strong safety, he also played free safety, which was good enough for him to land on his list.

    No safety has ever been as decorated as Lott was over the course of his career. He had the ability to completely change the course of a game with his key interceptions or massive hits.

    Lott was also one of the greatest competitors to ever play the game. In a game during the 1985 season, Lott had the tip of his pinkie finger amputated so he could continue to play.

    Few players, regardless of position, have ever made as much of an impact as Lott had over the course of his NFL career. He was ranked as the 11th greatest player to ever play the game by NFL.com.