Ranking the NFL's Top 10 Safeties Not Named Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistJuly 15, 2012

Ranking the NFL's Top 10 Safeties Not Named Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed

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    The Oakland Raiders decision to award a bumper new contract to Tyvon Branch served to re-emphasize the growing importance of safeties for modern NFL defenses.

    The position has overtaken linebacker as essential to the success of today's schemes. Safeties offer the hybrid skills coordinators crave as they attempt to match up with tight ends and running backs able to stretch the field in the passing game.

    AFC North duo Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu have dominated the safety position for years. However, there are plenty of other quality safeties patrolling the zones and attacking the line of scrimmage during the NFL season.

    Here are the 10 best safeties not named Polamalu or Reed, who are vital to the success of their respective defenses.

10. Dashon Goldson, San Francisco 49ers

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    Crafty free safety Dashon Goldson plays a crucial role in the creative schemes of San Francisco 49ers defensive guru Vic Fangio.

    Although their powerful front seven gets most of the attention, Goldson's ability to marshal the deep zones is just as important to the success of the Niners' defense.

    He snared six interceptions in 2011 and the security he provided in deep areas allowed cornerback Carlos Rogers to flourish. Goldson also proved he is no slouch against the run, chipping in with 67 tackles and forcing a fumble.

    NFL.com states that the six-year pro and the 49ers are struggling to agree a new long-term deal. Goldson will play under the terms of his franchise tender this season, but the NFC West champions should move quickly to secure this premier ball hawk for longer.

9. Michael Griffin, Tennessee Titans

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    Intelligent and solid, Michael Griffin does everything a safety needs to do and he does it well. The Tennessee Titans star is an important part of coordinator Jerry Gray's multiple system.

    In 2011, Griffin tallied 75 tackles, picked off two passes and forced a fumble. More important than numbers, though, Griffin's athleticism and range in coverage allows Gray to trust him with the deep end and gives the Titans more opportunities to clamp on the short zones underneath.

    Griffin had been inconsistent earlier in his career, but the 27-year-old is maturing into a true cover ace in the middle of the field. The Titans are clearly enamoured with his skills and rewarded him with a five-year deal, paying around $7 million annually, earlier this offseason.

8. Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills

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    Jairus Byrd is an opportunistic safety who dares quarterbacks to risk a throw into his zone. Since entering the NFL in 2009, Byrd has accumulated 13 interceptions.

    In 2011, he notched 98 tackles and for the second year in a row, he forced three fumbles. Byrd is a big-play safety who can be counted on for takeaways.

    He will only become more dangerous in Dave Wannstedt's attacking 4-3 system. With Marcell Dareus and Mario Williams applying pressure up front, expect Byrd to get his hands on even more passes this season.

7. Roman Harper, New Orleans Saints

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    The safety blitz has become more frequent in defensive playbooks, and there is no better proponent of it than Roman Harper. The New Orleans Saints' veteran has overtaken Arizona Cardinals star Adrian Wilson, as the best blitzing safety in the NFL.

    Harper has recorded 10.5 sacks during the last two seasons, including 7.5 in 2011. The 29-year-old plays almost as a de facto linebacker.

    His ability to attack the line of scrimmage allows the Saints to seamlessly transition from a 4-3 base to a nickel front. Harper's timing on the blitz means he can attack from anywhere in the alignment and he has become very tough for blocking schemes to pick up.

    Yes, he has his weaknesses in coverage, particularly when challenged by direct speed. However, the big plays he generates on the pass rush make Harper a vital part of a coordinator's blitz packages.

    Expect new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to design plenty of fire zone pressures to give Harper a free path to quarterbacks.

6. Tyvon Branch, Oakland Raiders

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    Tyvon Branch deserved his new deal from the Oakland Raiders. The 25-year-old is a dynamic playmaker who has been one of the NFL's most productive safeties since 2009.

    Branch has topped 100 tackles in each of the last three seasons and is real force around the line of scrimmage. A ferocious run defender and excellent blitzer, Branch is the perfect weapon for an attacking defense.

    That's not to say that coverage is a weak part of Branch's game. He has excelled against some of the league's best tight ends in one-on-one situations. He is not always at his best on vertical patterns, and that's the only thing that prevents Branch from being listed higher.

    The 6'0", 210-pounder still has the frame and intelligence to handle a wide range of assignments. New head coach Dennis Allen should have plenty of fun scheming ways to get even more from Branch this season.

5. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks

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    Earl Thomas is the fulcrum of the Seattle Seahawks' secondary and is rapidly becoming one of the best safeties in the NFL.

    The 23-year-old has used his first two pro seasons to post seven interceptions, 14 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and 133 solo tackles. Offering genuine hybrid skills, the 5'10" 202-pounder does not avoid run support and is an instinctive pass defender.

    He is occasionally left isolated by head coach Pete Carroll's man blitz schemes and needs another season of solid production. However, if a similar list to this is written in 12 months' time, expect to see Thomas placed a lot higher.

4. Kenny Phillips, New York Giants

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    The New York Giants know the importance of safeties and have tailored their defensive schemes to the skills of a talented and versatile group that includes Kenny Phillips.

    Since recovering from a serious injury suffered in 2009, Phillips has become vital to a Giants defense that relies heavily on a three-safety package.

    Possessing the quickness, range and physicality to excel in both coverage and run support, Phillips allows the Giants to do a lot of things from this look.

    At 6'2" and 217 pounds, he has the size to smother slot receivers and match up with physical tight ends. Phillips is also an aggressive player against the run. He has excellent closing speed and is a brutal hitter once he gets to the ball carrier.

    Coordinator Perry Fewell does a lot with Antrel Rolle, but Phillips' flexibility often goes unnoticed. He covers the deep zones whenever Rolle is up at the line of scrimmage and also drops down to pick up running backs and motion receivers in man coverage.

    The Giants simply couldn't execute their full range of schemes without Phillips patrolling the defensive backfield.

3. Adrian Wilson, Arizona Cardinals

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    Still an expert blitzer, Adrian Wilson has matured into a complete safety. The Arizona Cardinals defensive linchpin offers coordinator Ray Horton a versatile weapon, able to disrupt an offense in a variety of ways.

    Excellent in underneath coverage, Wilson's pass defense skills are often unfairly overlooked, as are his range and athleticism.

    He has the speed to fool a quarterback and rotate deep at the snap, or drop down from a zone look and pick up a crossing receiver man to man. Wilson also still retains the ability to create pressure from every angle.

    The 32-year-old shows little signs of slowing down and remains the chief playmaker on Arizona's improving defense.

2. Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers

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    There may be bigger hitters and superior athletes in the open field, but it takes a brave quarterback to throw deep down the middle when Eric Weddle is around.

    The San Diego Chargers safety has blossomed into a true star at his position during the last two seasons. In that time, Weddle has collected nine interceptions, broken up 21 passes and recorded 150 solo stops.

    The 5'11", 200-pounder is now one of the most prolific and feared ball hawks in the NFL. His instincts in coverage are outstanding. Weddle quickly reads a pass pattern and rarely gets it wrong.

    He has overtaken the likes of Shaun Phillips and Quentin Jammer as the most valuable player on the Chargers' defense.

    Peyton Manning, beware. 

1. Antrel Rolle, New York Giants

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    Converted cornerback Antrel Rolle has embraced all the responsibilities of a safety and is one of the NFL's very best.

    A true multi-use weapon for the New York Giants, Rolle has single-handedly expanded Big Blue's defensive playbook. His hybrid talents allow the G-Men to effortlessly mix man and zone coverage concepts in every game plan.

    Rolle can handle slot duty and also track pass-catchers on vertical patterns. Just as important, the 29-year-old is a fierce tackler who never shies away from delivering a big hit.

    A regular part of the Giants' blitz packages, Rolle combines a silky smooth athleticism and brute force, that few safeties are able to emulate.

    His versatility has become more important to the Giants' defense than Jason Pierre-Paul, Osi Umenyiora or Justin Tuck. Rolle is at the forefront of how defenses are using safeties in the modern game.

Honourable Mention: Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Normally this author does not like to include honourable mentions, but it would be seriously remiss to leave Eric Berry out of a discussion concerning talented safeties.

    The Kansas City Chiefs' youngster is only denied a space in the official 10, because virtually all of his second season was lost, thanks to a torn ACL.

    Yet despite a body of pro work spanning only a single season, the dynamic Kansas City Chiefs' youngster still deserves to be mentioned in this company. A true all-rounder, Berry's awesome physical skill set is matched by his natural football smarts and the speed of his decision making.

    He can cover receivers and tight ends in the slot and also be an effective part of a cover-2 shell. He has blazing closing speed and packs a punch in the running game, as well as being an excellent blitzer.

    Berry has stated that he will be at full strength, in time for the start of the season, according to NFL.com. If he is back to his best, then Romeo Crennel's defense will be amongst the league's toughest.