NFL: Troy Polamalu and the 10 Best Safeties in Football Today

Nick DeWitt@@nickdewitt11Analyst IDecember 10, 2010

NFL: Troy Polamalu and the 10 Best Safeties in Football Today

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    PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 14:  Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers watches the game against the New England Patriots from the bench during the game on November 14, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Imag
    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Safety is one of the most difficult positions in the NFL to play. There are so many responsibilities, styles and other factors to take into account when evaluating that particular type of defensive back.

    That being said, some of the league's best defensive players play one of the two safety positions in a defense. Here's a look at the top 10 safeties (either strong or free) playing in the National Football League today.

10. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks

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    SEATTLE - OCTOBER 24:  Free safety Earl Thomas #29 of the Seattle Seahawks looks on during warmups prior to the game against the Arizona Cardinals at Qwest Field on October 24, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: Leads rookie safeties with five interceptions

    Analysis:

    I know, I know. He's a rookie.

    But Thomas, who was heralded coming out of Texas, has quickly become a ball hawk in the NFL, grabbing five interceptions as a rookie to go with 63 tackles.

    That interception mark also leaves him tied for fifth in the NFL and ahead of any other safety on this list.

    He'll likely climb these rankings as his career progresses, but for a rookie, this is certainly not a bad place to start. He's an aggressive, smart player who doesn't give up big plays and has helped solidify a previously porous Seattle pass defense.

    Thomas is a player we'll all be watching.

9. Ryan Clark, FS, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    PITTSBURGH - OCTOBER 03: Ryan Clark #25 of the Pittsburgh Steelers lines up during the game against the Baltimore Ravens on October 3, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 43 solo tackles, 26 assists

    Analysis:

    Say I'm a homer. I'm honestly trying to be objective. Safety, as I said, is a hard position to judge. There are a million criteria. You can't just look at statistics.

    Clark doesn't have eye-popping numbers this season or really in his entire career. He's not a statistics player. He is a football player, however.

    His weapon? Fear.

    Clark will hit you. He will usually hit you legally. He will always hit you hard. He doesn't miss tackles, isn't a liability in a defensive backfield full of them and is a threat to anyone who dares go over the middle against Pittsburgh.

    He won't make flashy interceptions or streak into the backfield to make a big sack, but he will quietly destroy wide receivers and tight ends and play tight, sure coverage on those players.

    He isn't fast but doesn't get burned. His football instincts are sound.

8. Eric Berry, SS, Kansas City Chiefs

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    KANSAS CITY, MO - OCTOBER 24:  Safety Eric Berry #29 of the Kansas City Chiefs carries the ball after making an interception during the game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on October 24, 2010 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.  (Photo by Jam
    Jamie Squire/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 2 sacks, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble

    Analysis:

    Berry is another rookie who's making a lot of noise this year. He doesn't have the high interception totals that Earl Thomas does, but he's putting together a more solid, complete rookie campaign.

    Strong safety, especially since Troy Polamalu has emerged in the NFL, has become a playmaking position where the ability to create multiple threats is nearly always a must.

    Kansas City was dreadful last year in pass defense. Berry has helped solidify that defense and has provided some solid play to put Kansas City among the better defenses in the NFL.

    He's a sure tackler, instinctive playmaker, and has the ability to force mistakes by opposing offensive players.

    He's another player who merits watching and is in play for Defensive Rookie of the Year as a dark horse candidate.

7. Jim Leonhard, SS, New York Jets

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    EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - NOVEMBER 25:  Jim Leonhard #36 of the New York Jets runs with the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals at New Meadowlands Stadium on November 25, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Jets defeated the Bengal 26-10.  (Photo by Chri
    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 57 solo tackles, 4 assists

    Analysis:

    He's another statistically mediocre player who is so much more valuable than numbers.

    Tackles are important from the safety position, so don't discount that high solo tackle number. That means he's good in the open field and doesn't need help to bring people down (like most defensive backs can).

    Beyond the numbers, he's looked at as the quarterback of the New York Jets defense. They'll be missing him greatly now that he's lost for the season with a busted leg.

    Want to know why Darrelle Revis has been an all-world type player? Part of that is because he has a tough strong safety with him in the defensive backfield.

    No one is fooled by Leonhard anymore. A former no-name standout with the Ravens, he's emerged as a steady threat.

6. Charles Godfrey, SS, Carolina Panthers

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    NEW ORLEANS - OCTOBER 03:  Charles Godfrey #30 of the Carolina Panthers in action during the game against the New Orleans Saints at the Louisiana Superdome on October 3, 2010 in New Orleans, Louisiana.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 59 solo tackles, 5 interceptions, 1 fumble forced

    Analysis:

    Here's one for the stat geeks. He's a nightmare on the stat sheet, piling up big tackle numbers and five interceptions to go with those.

    He's one of those unheralded players simply because he plays for a bad team. Unless you're a diehard Panthers fan, chances are you haven't heard of Godfrey yet.

    He's a steady player on a banged-up and unspectacular defense. He's a playmaker, too, something the strong safety position demands today. In an era of big-play safeties, the only thing missing is a sack.

    Don't be fooled, however. Godfrey's playing style suits Carolina just fine. He's not a pass rush specialist. He's a coverage safety.

    He's a young player who merits watching and might get a Pro Bowl nod this year.

5. Roman Harper, SS, New Orleans Saints

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    MIAMI GARDENS, FL - FEBRUARY 07: Roman Harper #41 of the New Orleans Saints reacts to a play against the Indianapolis Colts during Super Bowl XLIV on February 7, 2010 at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
    Elsa/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 58 solo tackles, 5 fumbles forced, 2 sacks, 1 interception

    Analysis:

    He's another player who produces big numbers. He's already got 58 tackles and five forced fumbles.

    He's also another player you may or may not have heard of. He plays for the defending Super Bowl champion Saints, and he's not new, but he's been overshadowed by veteran Darren Sharper, whose stellar career makes him a household name.

    But Harper is the true playmaker for the Saints this season. He's all over the field, making plays in the backfield and against the passing game. Unlike a lot of defensive backs, he does his best work against the run.

    He's young and has room to improve, but he's already among the best safeties in the league.

4. Donte Whitner, SS, Buffalo Bills

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    ORCHARD PARK, NY - SEPTEMBER 20:  Safety Donte Whitner #20 of the Buffalo Bills looks up field during the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Ralph Wilson Stadium on September 20, 2009 in Orchard Park, New York.  The Bills won 33-20.  (Photo by Rick
    Rick Stewart/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 75 solo tackles, 6 passes defensed

    Analysis:

    He's very valuable to Buffalo, which doesn't have a ton of playmakers on defense. He's steady as they come and doesn't make many mistakes.

    His numbers don't show it, but he's pretty good against the run and has done well teaming with Jairus Byrd this year. He's definitely been worth the first-round pick.

    Whitner"s instincts are among the league's best. He's definitely not a player you can ignore.

    He's only picked off one pass so far this season, but his game is more about taking up space in the field and making fast, sure plays. With 75 solo tackles, he's certainly getting that job done.

3. Brandon Meriweather, SS, New England Patriots

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    SAN DIEGO - OCTOBER 24:  Brandon Meriweather #31 of the New England Patriots warms up against the San Diego Chargers at Qualcomm Stadium on October 24, 2010 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
    Harry How/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 2 interceptions, 4 passes defensed

    Analysis:

    He's not having his best year, but he's one of the best safeties in the game today.

    Meriweather is a complete playmaker. He's aggressive (sometimes to the point of being penalized for vicious hits), he's got ball skills that rival many other players, and he's gifted with impressive instincts.

    Meriweather, like Ryan Clark, relies a great deal on fear to intimidate players. Unlike Clark, he has a ton of other skills to back that up. He can make any play from anywhere. He's one of those rare defensive players who you have to account for when making a game plan.

    He misses out on top-two status because he seems to require support to be a truly great player, but he's certainly capable of being a consistent top-five safety for years to come.

2. Ed Reed, FS, Baltimore Ravens

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    CHARLOTTE, NC - NOVEMBER 21:  Ed Reed #20 of the Baltimore Ravens against the Carolina Panthers at Bank of America Stadium on November 21, 2010 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 4 interceptions in 6 games

    Analysis:

    You can't look at Reed's statistics because he's only played in six contests this year after returning from a serious injury.

    What you can tell from the numbers is that, in only six games, Reed has eclipsed several players who have played all season long.

    Reed is, along with Troy Polamalu, one of the true game-changing safeties in the league. He must be game-planned for, must be avoided by quarterbacks who dislike turnovers and is a player you must play around.

    He forces turnovers, is adept at tipping passes and creates havoc all over the football field. He doesn't have the ability to make plays off blitzes, but he's an excellent all-around player who never fails to make some kind of impact in almost every game.

1. Troy Polamalu, SS, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    PITTSBURGH - NOVEMBER 21:  Troy Polamalu #43 of the Pittsburgh Steelers runs with the ball after catching an interception against the Oakland Raiders during the game on November 21, 2010 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerh
    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Key Statistic: 48 solo tackles, 8 passes defensed, 4 interceptions, 1 forced fumble

    Analysis:

    It's hard to pick between Reed and Polamalu. Both are game-changers. Both are standout players. Both are perennial Pro Bowlers.

    The difference, in the end, is that Polamalu is a little bit more fearsome.

    He literally shows up everywhere. He gives opposing offenses fits because he can come in on a blitz, drop back into coverage, create a turnover or set up a big play by one of the team's linebackers.

    Polamalu's best asset, and what sets him apart, is his ability to close on a receiver or runner and take them down before they make a big gain. Lots of receivers look open and there seems to be a ton of running space, but Polamalu can close gaps so fast that something that looks good for a first down can turn into a loss.

    He's totally changed the way the position is looked at, as well, which means his impact and importance transcend the play on the field. He's having a season several defensive backs would die for, and those numbers are considered well off his usual pace. That's how you know you're a top player.

    Ask a few quarterbacks who they fear most on an opposing defense. The odds are that several will say that they never want to play against a healthy Troy Polamalu.