20 Best Safeties in NFL History
When we think of the leaders on a defense, middle linebackers instantly come to mind.
Why not safeties?
These guys have loads of responsibilities.
Covering the deep ball, making plays on poor decisions by opposing quarterbacks and maybe most importantly, being a factor against the run.
Over the course of NFL history, we've seen a myriad of great leaders at the safety position, usually daring athletes capable of doing it all.
Let's rank the Top 20 of all time.
20. Joey Browner
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Browner made his name as a professional for the Vikings in the 1980's, amassing over 1,000 career tackles and 37 interceptions.
He only played from 1983-1991, but forced a ridiculous 18 fumbles and recovered 16 of them.
At 6'2'', 220 pounds, Browner was a force stopping the run as well and was a sure tackler.
Browner tallied 11 interceptions in 1987 and 1988 combined, seasons in which he was named to the All-Pro team.
19. Cliff Harris
Harris played for the Cowboys during their great run in the 1970's.
He only finished his career with 29 interceptions, which is relatively low compared to the other safeties on this list, but he was nicknamed "Captain Crash" for his reckless way in which he chased down ball carriers.
Many of his teammates said Harris dramatically changed how the free safety position was played due to the fact that he could play the pass but was fearsome against the run.
He was a First Team All-Pro from 1975-1979 and is a member of Dallas' Ring of Honor.
18. Kenny Easley
When you think of Seahawk all-timers, Steve Largent and Cortez Kennedy instantly come to mind.
Kenny Easley is a name that certainly belongs in the same breath with those greats.
He was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1984 from his safety spot after returning two of his league-leading 10 interceptions for touchdowns.
A very unfortunate kidney disease allowed Easley to only play from 1981-1987, but there weren't many better during that stretch.
He was a First Team All-Pro from 1982-1985 and will go down in history as one of the great "centerfielders."
17. John Lynch
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Although John Lynch ended his career with only 26 interceptions, he was a shoe-in to make this list, for many reasons.
Lynch played the game like hard-hitting safeties Ronnie Lott and Steve Atwater did before him. He put his body on the line every Sunday, and receivers were hesitant to go across the middle in the 1990s and 2000s whenever they played the Buccaneers.
He was gritty player with the frame and build to deliver crushing blows.
And he surely did.
A class act on and off the field, John Lynch was a true throwback player who flourished at his position for over a decade.
16. Darren Woodson
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One of many perennial Pro Bowlers on the Dallas Cowboys in the 1990's, Darren Woodson was the all-purpose safety they needed to win Super Bowls.
He is the team's all-time leader in tackles with 1,350 and had a nose for the football, hauling in 23 interceptions for Big D.
Woodson was a premier hitter, too. His big body allowed him to deliver the huge hits, and running backs remembered the pain he brought every day. No. 28 didn't have the longest career, but in his prime, he was among the best.
He was named to the All-Pro team four times.
15. Donnie Shell
This list wouldn't be complete without adding a member of the "Steel Curtain" defense.
Although Shell isn't the most notable name from those terroryizng Pittsburgh defense's of the 1970s, he was no slouch either.
He entered the league in 1974 and was a five-time Pro Bowler from 1978-1982.
Shell finished his career with a respectable 51 interceptions and is remembered for making several touchdown saving plays in Super Bowl XIII and XIV.
We often overlook durability and longevity, but Shell had them both. He played in 201 games for the Steelers, second in franchise history behind Hall of Famer Mike Webster.
14. Darren Sharper
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In his prime, Darren Sharper was one of the most electric defensive playmakers in the NFC.
During his years with the Packers, Sharper made opposing quarterbacks pay with his penchant for the big interception and huge return.
He followed that up with more of the same in Minnesota, and in 2009, he broke Ed Reed's record for most interception returns yards in a season with 375 on the nine picks.
I don't know how he did it, but whenever Sharper intercepted the ball, he had a legitimate shot to score or give his team ideal field position.
13. Brian Dawkins
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The majority of the players on this list played with a reckless abandon in their career and weren't afraid to take on big running backs in the open field.
Brian Dawkins embodied those traits, but for me, he has always brought something a little more on Sundays.
He defines the word leader, both vocally and with his attacking style of play. Some of his contributions as the anchor on many of his defenses cannot be measured because they were physiological and gave his team a competitive edge when they needed it most.
Dawkins does have numbers to back up my case, too.
He has 37 career interceptions, 1,118 tackles and is a six-time All-Pro.
His intense passion for the game and endless pursuit of perfection made him one of the most fearsome safeties of his time.
12. Jack Tatum
Jack Tatum fit perfectly with the "Silver and Black" in the 1970's.
A crushing hitter in the open field, Tatum was nicknamed "The Assassin" by his teammates and is known for his hit on Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley that paralyzed him, along with a helmet-popping hit on a Vikings receiver in Super Bowl XI.
He finished his career with 37 interceptions and was a three-time Pro Bowler, but there are a small number of defensive backs that were more aggressive tacklers than Tatum.
11. Yale Lary
Lary was the most unconventional safety in NFL history.
He finished his career with the Lions, having picked off 50 passes during the wonder years for Detroit in the 1950's and 1960's. The Lions' last line of defense average nearly 16-yards per interception return, a highly respectable number.
Lary was the league's best punter in his era, and it wasn't even close. He won punting titles in 1959, 1961 and 1963, finishing second in 1962.
Outside of his punting duties, he returned kickoffs and punt returns.
This guy did it all.
10. Deron Cherry
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A fine safety that is relatively unknown by the younger football fans.
Cherry was another "do-it-all" defensive back like many of the players on this list and was handsomely rewarded for his stellar play by being named to six Pro Bowl teams.
He was a member of the Chiefs from 1981-1991, accumulated 50 interceptions and had six 100-tackle seasons.
Cherry was a vital part of many ferocious Chiefs defenses of the late 1980's.
9. Willie Wood
On the iconic Packers teams that captured the first two Super Bowls, Willie Wood was one of the most versatile yet overshadowed players.
He was positioned behind future Hall of Famers Herb Adderley, Ray Nitschke, Willie Davis and Henry Jordan but was a key defender in Green Bay during their glory years.
Wood's most memorable play came in the first Super Bowl, when he took back an interception 50-yards for a score, opening the flood gates to a 35-10 win.
He retired in 1971 as an eight-time Pro Bowler with 48 career interceptions.
A 1989 inductee to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
8. Emlen Tunnell
Emlen Tunnell might be the best safety you've never heard of, having played in the late 1940's through the early 1960's.
Tunnell not only finished his 14-year career (with the Giants then Packers) with a then record 79 interceptions, he was the first African-American ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.
No. 45 was the free safety on some historic Packers teams, two of which won the league championship. (1959, 1961)
His nickname was "offense on defense" with good reason. He accumulated 1,282 return yards on his 79 picks.
Tunnell also led the NFL in punt return yardage and 1951 and 1952.
An all-time great safety, and even a better all-around athlete.
7. Ed Reed
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Ray Lewis may be the backbone of the Ravens defense, but Ed Reed has proved himself to be equally as important.
With an keen instinct for the ball and the willingness to lay the lumber on any opposing player, Reed is the ideal safety.
He's a fine run-stuffer ready to take on any size back and always makes a big return following one of his interceptions.
Reed was deservedly named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He's a seven-time First Team All-Pro and has 56 career picks and counting.
He has been injured, but has bounced back each time and hasn't lost a step at age 33.
Beast. Total package. Whatever you want to call him, Ed Reed is among the best defensive backs in history.
6. Steve Atwater
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Steve Atwater could make the list for greatest linebackers of all-time, because he surely played like one in his 11 NFL seasons.
In Atwater's rookie year of 1987, his impact was immediate. The Broncos, who were 27th against the rush in 1986, vaulted to 7th and gave up an outstanding 3.7 yards per carry with Atwater in the lineup.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips positioned Atwater near the line of scrimmage often, and the 6'3'', 220 pound monster unquestionably made his presence felt .
He averaged 149 tackles from 1989-1993 and finished his career as a Bronco with 1,038 tackles in 10-years.
Most of the tackles weren't of the soft variety, either.
Atwater struck fear into all opposing running backs and played a critical role, even in the twilight of his career, on the Broncos Super Bowl winning clubs in the late 1990's.
5. Troy Polamalu
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Many of these players are noted for the almost crazy way in which they played the game.
Troy Polamalu is certainly no different.
The heart-and-soul of the Steelers chases down running backs and quarterbacks alike, trademark locks flying in the wind, with more passion and speed than I've ever seen.
He is equally as valuable against the pass, where he usually is in the right spot at the right time and has displayed some of his most acrobatic interceptions in the most crucial moments for Pittsburgh.
That's the most important factor for Troy's candidacy here. He has been a part of many huge games and always seems to save his biggest plays for crunch time.
Polamalu isn't the biggest safety in the NFL, but goes 100 percent on every play and has the football IQ to know where the quarterback is looking to throw the football.
4. Larry Wilson
There aren't many safeties on this list who were more complete players than Larry Wilson.
Sure, he played in a totally different era from 1960-1972, but he brought everything to the table you'd want from your safety.
He revolutionized the "safety blitz" that we see in every game today and finished his career with a whopping 52 interceptions.
Wilson wasn't the biggest man, standing 6'0'' and weighing 190 pounds, but he embodied how football was played back then and is easily one of the best ever.
3. Paul Krause
Neither Rod Woodson, Ronnie Lott or Deion Sanders have the most interceptions all-time.
That distinction goes to one Mr. Paul Krause.
Krause intercepted 81 passes in his career with the Redskins and Vikings, 12 of which came in a breakout rookie campaign of 1964.
This man could flat out intercept the football.
In his first season in the NFL, Krause had a pick in seven straight games and almost matched that total in 1968 when he intercepted a pass in six straight games.
He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1998.
2. Ken Houston
As a member of the Oilers and Redskins, Ken Houston totaled 49 interceptions and scored 12 touchdowns.
In 1971, he set an NFL record with five touchdown returns (four interceptions and one fumble). The record would stand until Devin Hester broke the record in 2006.
Houston really did it all. Outside of being a play-making safety, he returned kicks and punts and recovered 21 fumbles in his illustrious time as a professional.
At 6'3'' 200, Houston made his presence known as a punishing tackler along with his elite ball-hawking skills.
Houston was a member of NFL 75th anniversary team. In 1986, he was inducted to the Hall of Fame and was named to the Pro Bowl 12 times.
1. Ronnie Lott
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Ronnie Lott is the gold standard of safeties.
In fact, he's arguably the best defensive back in the history of the game.
Lott was totally fearless but didn't play out of control. He was always a step ahead of the offense and knew when it was time to wrap up and when he could really lay out an opposing receiver.
Along with his intimidating style of play, Lott was an elite ball-hawk, reeling in 63 interceptions during his time with the 49ers, Raiders, Jets and Chiefs, returning five of them for touchdowns.
We all know about his legendary finger amputation, which proves why he was the toughest ever.
No one is better than Mr. Lott.