The position known as “safety” was dubbed years ago because it was the last line of the defense. While it still exists in the same name, much about the position has changed over the past 10 years.
The coaching point for safeties was “always stay as deep as the deep.” Players who were too slow to play cornerback or too small to play linebacker were often sent off to be safeties. Then came the offensive innovations such as flexing tight ends off the line of scrimmage, motioning running backs out of the backfield and three-receiver packages. They changed the value of the safety position, forcing teams to look for defenders who could literally do it all.
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Safeties in today’s NFL are masters of disguise. They are players who can blitz, serve as the eighth man in the box, line up against No. 3 receivers and possess man-to-man cover skills.
Technically, there are 64 starting safeties across the league. But the emergence of the ‘Big Nickel’ package made popular by Bill Belichick brings a third safety on the field to replace a linebacker in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, utilizing a player who can handle the matchup nightmares offenses present with different formations and packages.
As former Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher has said, “Today’s safeties are smaller and faster, but they break down when having to defend the run play in and play out.”
Here is my list of the top 30 safeties, but realize that strong and free safeties are interchangeable in the modern game and listed together. As I have done with the other position rankings this spring, the players are listed in groups of five and in alphabetical order within each group. Each player listed has either an (^) for players on the rise and has room for growth, (>) for players maintaining their status and playing at their peak level or (v) for those who can’t sustain their level of play and are on the decline.
1. Nick Collins, Packers (^): A rising star at free safety who is the perfect fit in Dom Capers’ pressure defense. He has 17 interceptions and 40 passes defended over the past three seasons.
2. Louis Delmas, Lions (^): An emerging free safety who too many coaches pointed to when I asked for some new names at the position.
3. Troy Polamalu, Steelers (>): The master of every trick in the book. Polamalu has completed a 16-game season in only three of his seven seasons because of his physical style of play. He has missed 13 regular-season games the last three seasons but still has 17 interceptions and 35 passes defended.
4. Ed Reed, Ravens (>): A free safety with special ball-hawking skills. He has missed 10 games in the past three years and still has 11 interceptions in his last 22 games. Reed is a Hall of Fame player and the best deep middle player in the NFL. He’s forced 32 turnovers (interceptions and forced fumbles) the last four years.
5. Earl Thomas, Seahawks (^): The only person who has coached both Polamalu and Thomas is Pete Carroll, who told me at the end of the season that Thomas is the closest he’s ever seen to Polamalu’s skills. Thomas had five interceptions as a rookie, the same number as Reed and more than both Collins and Polamalu