Today's Best Safeties and Their Throwback Comparisons
It all comes down to this.
Here comes the 12th and final installment of our throwback series where we take a look at the different positions around the NFL and draw comparisons to standouts of years gone by.
While safety is a priority in the game of football, we’ve chosen to feature the safeties last instead of the position of safety first.
Yes, punt intended.
How exactly do we come up with these comparisons? The criteria are multi-faceted, and one legend doesn’t fit all. We are talking style as much as anything because after all the eye test is still the best pop quiz ever. But other factors will be taken into account when making comparisons.
One final reminder: This is not a ranking of the five best safeties currently in the NFL. For instance, Cleveland Browns strong safety T.J. Ward wound up in the Pro Bowl in place of Troy Polamalu. You won't find Ward or Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor here. This is simply some of the best players at their position and whom they remind us of from the distant or not-too distant past.
Finally, here is a big “thank you” to the people at Pro-Football-Reference.com for their statistical support.
FS Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Similar To: Willie Wood
The “Legion of Boom” is probably still celebrating lowering the boom on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Seattle Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas totaled seven tackles and knocked down a pass in the team's convincing win at MetLife Stadium. It was simply business as usual for the Pro Bowl defender.
And his business in 2013 was showing the way. The defensive back-of-all-trades and master of just about everything finished as the Seattle Seahawks second-leading tackler this past season.
The rangy safety finished second on the team with 105 tackles, five interceptions, eight passes defensed and a pair of forced fumbles. He was the catalyst for a club that gave up the fewest total yards and fewest points in the league in 2013.
Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Willie Wood was an important and reliable player on a stellar Green Bay Packers defensive unit that did its job on a weekly basis. At 5’10” and 190 pounds (Thomas is 5’10” and 208 pounds), Wood could lay the wood like the current Seahawks safety and also had a great nose for the ball.
While it’s too early in Thomas’ career to compare interception totals, he can also be considered reliable since he has not missed a starter in four NFL seasons.
SS Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers
Similar To: Yale Lary
At least once or twice a season, Pittsburgh Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu manages to do something that astounds us.
While he’s recognizable due to his hair, at times he appears head and shoulders above everyone else at his position.
From vaulting quarterbacks to anticipating wide receiver screens to one-handed interceptions, the amazingly athletic performer has been fun to watch in his 11 NFL seasons. The eight-time Pro Bowler has totaled 32 interceptions and one dozen sacks and returned five opponent turnovers for touchdowns.
When you think of athletes and safeties, it is hard not to acknowledge Hall of Famer Yale Lary. He was not only one of the best ball hawks of his day, but he knew what to do with the football whenever he got his hands on it.
The Detroit Lions star did it all, from intercepting 50 career passes and totaling 13 opponent fumble recoveries to returning punts (three for touchdowns) and handling punting duties for his own team.
These kinds of players have always been and will continue to be hard to find. In the case of Lary and Polamalu, it’s fun to savor the moments.
FS Jairus Byrd, Buffalo Bills
Similar To: Ken Houston
Three Pro Bowl invitations in five seasons do not make a Hall of Fame career.
However, it is a good start if you are free safety Jairus Byrd of the Buffalo Bills (at least for now).
The heady defender is slated to become an unrestricted free agent in March if he and the team can’t agree on with a new deal. That is a story for a much different slideshow.
What we do know about Byrd is that he always seems to be around the football, which is a trait that he shares with Pro Football Hall of Fame safety Ken Houston. In five seasons, Byrd has amassed 22 interceptions and recovered five fumbles.
It was a different league and era when Houston began his career with the Houston Oilers. In his first five seasons, he totaled 25 interceptions and returned eight of those for touchdowns, plus he recovered seven fumbles and took back one for a score.
While representing very different eras in the game, these two share the ball skills that make them invaluable to any defense. These days, when takeaways are harder to come by, Byrd still manages to get the job done.
SS Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
Similar To: Larry Wilson
We may be jumping the gun here a bit, but give us a moment.
St. Louis Cardinals free safety Larry Wilson helped put the safety in the safety blitz in the 1960s and 1970s. More modern-day comparisons to the Pro Football Hall of Famer include LeRoy Butler and Adrian Wilson.
But it is interesting to note that Kansas City strong safety Eric Berry may be getting ready to assume the throne when it comes to defensive backs getting to the quarterback. He’s also fared well when it comes to getting his hands on the football.
In 2013, he finished second on the team with 74 tackles, and 66 of those were of the solo variety. He picked off three passes, returned two for touchdowns, recovered a pair of fumbles and totaled 10 passes defensed.
Of course, there were also 3.5 sacks. Could we be seeing more of that in the future now that Berry (who missed all but one game in 2011 due to a knee injury) may be feeling like his old self? As a rookie in 2010, he totaled a pair of sacks, giving him 5.5 for his brief career.
There are no official statistics on sacks when it comes to Wilson, but his impact was indisputable—just like the 52 career interceptions that the eight-time Pro Bowler amassed with the Cardinals.
FS Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers
Similar To: Paul Krause
Some performers are just good football players, regardless of the numbers.
They say you can’t measure heart, determination and instincts. San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle fits that bill as he continues to make a name for himself.
The two-time Pro Bowler led the Bolts with 115 tackles this past season. He also knocked down 10 passes and added a sack to his resume. While the Chargers only totaled 17 takeaways as a team in 2013, Weddle had four of them, split equally between interceptions and fumble recoveries.
In seven NFL seasons, the former second-round draft choice from the University of Utah has totaled 23 takeaways, including 18 interceptions.
It’s almost impossible to compare the defensive numbers of today to yesteryear, as the rules were much different when it came to pass coverage. Perhaps no player will ever match Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause’s 81 career interceptions. Like Weddle, the ball-hawking defender had great ball instincts and knew just where to be at the right time.
Those abilities are hard to put a finger on. In the case of Weddle, he’s doing just fine with all 10 digits.