10 Most Talented Safety Tandems in the NFL
NFL defenses have had to adjust schemes and personnel formations as NFL offenses have increased passing tendencies by 63 percent since 1977, per HammerTheOver.com. To combat the increased emphasis on passing to be an effective offense, defensive backs have seen their value go up in recent years.
Since 2002, 18 safeties have been selected in the first-round of the NFL draft. Defensive coordinators have had to use more athletic and versatile safeties to combat spread offenses, which often feature athletic tight ends as glorified receivers.
Not only do top safeties need to be fast and fluid enough to cover slot receivers, but they also need to be big and strong enough to challenge tight ends who run seam routes.
The emergence of bigger, more versatile offensive weapons has caused the safety position to see massive spikes in guaranteed contracts. There are currently 32 safeties in the NFL with $5 million or more guaranteed in their contract, which is the fifth-highest amount of all 22 starting positions.
Only two teams ran the ball for a majority of their snaps in 2013, per Team Rankings, which is less than half of the amount of teams that did so in 2003. Expect that trend to continue as collegiate players enter the league with more experience in spread systems than ever before.
There are a lot of talented safeties in the NFL now that there is a higher emphasis and investment on the position. Let’s take a look at the top 10 most talented tandems in the league. Although statistics are useful, the film is more indicative of where these duos land.
1. Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor (Seattle Seahawks)
The reigning Super Bowl champions were led by Legion of Boom secondary members Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. It should come as no surprise that this dynamic duo is ranked as the NFL’s most elite tandem.
The Seahawks defense is loaded on all three levels, but Thomas and Chancellor's impact has allowed the unit to be dominant. The Seahawks defense allowed just 273.6 yards per game, which was by far the least in 2013.
Thomas is one of the most valuable players in the league. His incredible range is highlighted by his 4.43 40-yard dash, but his play recognition is second to none.
By diagnosing plays with amazing efficiency, Thomas gets to the point of contest and challenges receivers at its highest point. It’s truly difficult to make a case that Thomas isn’t the best overall safety in the NFL today. His new four-year, $40 million extension was well-earned.
Across from Thomas is Chancellor. The 6’3”, 232-pound safety has started the newest NFL trend: getting hybrid linebackers who can cover in order to avoid mismatches. Chancellor became a star in the playoffs, where his Pro Football Focus grade of 12.7 in 197 snaps was three times higher than the next safety.
He’s one of the best in-the-box safeties, as he attacks the run game like a linebacker. In the playoffs, he showed promise as a coverage safety, smothering Jimmy Graham, Julius Thomas and Vernon Davis when they matched up.
2. Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro (New Orleans Saints)
The other elite pairing in the NFL now belongs to the New Orleans Saints. The Saints made one of the biggest acquisitions of the offseason when they signed Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal.
It took some cap magic to sign Byrd, but pairing him with second-year safety Kenny Vaccaro drastically improves the woeful Saints defense.
Byrd missed five games in 2013, but he still ended the season as PFF’s eighth-best safety because of his tremendous ball skills. As a cover safety, he allowed a quarterback rating of just 35.8, good for second-best in the NFL. He’s a rare single-high safety who alters defenses’ capabilities on every play.
Vaccaro had a very impressive rookie season, notching 68 total tackles and six pass deflections. He was able to step in immediately and be the third-best run-defending safety in the league, per PFF. With Byrd in the fold, he can continue to play to his strength and have less pressure in coverage.
But Vaccaro has solid upside as a cover safety, as he has quick feet and good ball skills. He’s able to cover slot receivers, and he's improving against tight ends. He’s not a liability in coverage by any stretch of the imagination.
3. Michael Griffin and Bernard Pollard (Tennessee Titans)
Michael Griffin had a nice resurgence in 2013, tallying 82 tackles and two forced fumbles. More importantly, he regained the physical edge that he seemed to lose in 2012.
Griffin’s impact will continue to rise in 2014 because of new defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s defense. His ability to play single high allows great flexibility for the defense.
One of the best free-agent signings in 2013, Bernard Pollard proved to be an immediate difference-maker for the Tennessee Titans. With 99 tackles, three interceptions and 10 passes defensed, Pollard is one of the top strong safeties in the NFL. Some loathe his hard-hitting approach, but he strikes fear into opponents. Expect Pollard to be even better in Horton’s defense.
The Titans' tandem not only fits their defensive scheme perfectly, but each possesses the talent to be a top-tier player in his own right. Expect massive production from this duo.
4. Antrel Rolle and Stevie Brown (New York Giants)
The New York Giants' defensive woes in 2013 were a major reason for their 7-9 finish but don't blame their uber-talented safety, Antrel Rolle.
Rolle has continued to be a high-level producer for the last few seasons, and his 2013 season was his finest. His six interceptions and 98 total tackles only indicate part of his impact, as he was forced to deal with little help on defense.
His transition from free to strong safety wasn’t a big deal, as he still spent plenty of time in coverage. As a run defender, Rolle continues to be toward the top of the league.
Stevie Brown played well in 2012, so his inclusion on this list shouldn’t be surprising. He is now healthy after missing 2013 due to a torn ACL in the preseason.
If he’s back to full health, Brown will be a tremendous fit next to Rolle. He’s solid in coverage and forces turnovers, which the Giants defense desperately must improve upon. Don’t be surprised if Brown becomes a Pro Bowl contender this year.
5. Reggie Nelson and George Iloka (Cincinnati Bengals)
The tandem of Reggie Nelson and George Iloka allows the Cincinnati Bengals to be very aggressive with their front seven, because each is highly capable in coverage.
Nelson regressed a bit in 2013, lacking the consistency that he had in previous seasons, but the talent is still considerable. He ability to play either the free or strong safety position is a testament to his well-rounded game.Whether in the box to defend against the run or in deep coverage and helping the cornerbacks, Nelson’s tremendous athleticism overcomes mistakes made by teammates.
It’s Iloka’s emergence that keeps this group so highly ranked, with potential to rise.
As a second-year player, he had some ups and downs, but that’s normal for a young safety. Expect more consistency this year. The 1,103 total snaps he logged last year will give him a lot of film to study, and he’ll find that his eye discipline improved throughout the season.
6. Troy Polamalu and Mike Mitchell (Pittsburgh Steelers)
At 33, his physical talent has diminished, but his incredible timing and natural instincts haven’t dissipated yet. Polamalu racked up 69 tackles, five forced fumbles, two interceptions and 11 defensed passes.
Despite the aging defenders crumbling around him, Polamalu found youth and showed why he’s a future Hall of Famer. He’s still amongst the most talented safeties in the league. He was PFF’s fifth-best safety in 2013.
The Steelers brought in former Carolina Panthers’ safety Mike Mitchell to pair with Polamalu, and that tandem works well for the duo. Mitchell brings great size and athletic ability to the free safety position and is in his prime at 27 years old. At 6’1”, 220 pounds, Mitchell will line up against tight ends, relieving pressure for the defense. He isn’t great against the run, but he immediately upgrades the pass defense.
7. Eric Weddle and Marcus Gilchrist (San Diego Chargers)
Eric Weddle continues to be a top-tier free safety, and 2013 was no exception. He notched 90 tackles and allowed just a 72.8 quarterback rating and was the best Chargers’ defensive player once again.
Weddle was somewhat inconsistent throughout 2013, but the defense as a whole was in shambles, forcing this tandem to overcompensate. That shouldn’t be held against Weddle. As the season progressed, he became steadier in his run defense, and his pass coverage is always superb.
Marcus Gilchrist was a pleasant surprise in 2013, acting as a traditional strong safety. His 5’10”, 190-pound frame suggests he wouldn’t be solid against the run, but his presence in the box is a nice complement to Weddle’s. Gilchrist needs to improve his coverage ability, as he allowed 74.4 percent of passes thrown his way to be completed, according to PFF.
8. Rahim Moore and T.J. Ward (Denver Broncos)
The Denver Broncos signing T.J. Ward was a tremendous addition. It’s not often that a team can add one of the top players at their respective position in their prime, but the Broncos signed PFF’s fourth-ranked safety to a modest four-year, $22.5 million contract.
Ward isn’t great in coverage, so defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio has to be careful when matching him up against top tight ends, but Ward is an elite run defender. Ward has great closing speed and sheds blocks well, so he’s essentially an undersized linebacker.
At free safety, Rahim Moore has developed into a solid coverage defender. He has good speed and improved his recognition ability in 2013. He’s not the type of player to leave single high for more than a dozen or so passing plays, but he’s capable of being a factor against most quarterbacks.
9. Eric Reid and Antoine Bethea (San Francisco 49ers)
One of the more surprising rookie performers of 2013, Eric Reid showed why he was a steal for the San Francisco 49ers at the 18th overall pick.
He’s a big safety at 6’1”, 213 pounds, but his movement is incredibly fluid. Despite some bumps in pass coverage, Reid flashed upside as a potential single-high free safety in the future.
For the 49ers, they hope that time is now.
After allowing Donte Whitner to depart in free agency, the 49ers signed Antoine Bethea from the Indianapolis Colts.
Bethea has been underrated for his talents, but he’s mostly a run-stopping safety at this point in his career. His coverage skills are very average, but his issues were compounded by the Colts’ porous defense. The 49ers will allow Bethea to play to his strengths more often.
10. Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon (New England Patriots)
The New England Patriots’ duo of Devin McCourty and Duron Harmon are carried quite a bit by McCourty, whose transition from cornerback to safety has yielded phenomenal results.
McCourty’s ability to cover receivers, running backs and tight ends allows the Patriots to line up in confusing packages pre-snap.
Quarterbacks must locate McCourty on every play, and that playmaking talent is rare in the NFL. His three interceptions in 2013 could’ve been even higher if he would’ve caught a few dropped passes. He should continue to grow and improve as he gets more experience at the position.
Harmon had a nice rookie season, as he totaled 24 tackles and two interceptions. His playoff performance against the Broncos really opened eyes because he showed quick reaction ability and high football IQ. He needs to improve as a run defender to help elevate this tandem’s ranking.
Louis Delmas and Reshad Jones (Miami Dolphins)
Jones struggled in the first half of 2013, but he rebounded to his 2012 form down the stretch. He has enough talent to be a top-five safety in the league. Now he needs to be more consistent.
Delmas is a high-risk, high-reward talent. Staying healthy is an issue for the former Detroit Lions safety, but when he’s on the field, he forces turnovers.
Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon (Arizona Cardinals)
The youngest tandem on this list just has to get experience to get more recognition. Mathieu has continued to be a tremendous playmaker since his LSU days, and if he is healthy, he figures to be a top-10 free safety.
Bucannon has immense physical potential and fits the hybrid linebacker and safety mold. He’s a good cover safety, but he's terrific against the run.
Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
This tandem struggled mightily in 2013, but the Bucs’ new defensive scheme under Lovie Smith will be much more friendly. Expect a major rebound for each of these players in 2014.
All stats used are from Pro Football Focus' Premium Stats (subscription required) or Sports-Reference.com. All combine and pro day info is courtesy of ESPN.com. All contract information is courtesy of Spotrac.com.
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