April 24, 2024

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20 greatest safeties in NFL history

20 greatest safeties in NFL history

Eric Berry
Jan 20, 2019; Kansas City, MO, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) runs the ball as Kansas City Chiefs defensive back Eric Berry (29) defends during overtime in the AFC Championship game at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a little unfair how much the safety position gets overlooked in the NFL, even the best safeties of all time.

After all, safeties are the last line of defense and are asked to make plays all over the field. If nothing else, the greatest safeties in NFL history deserve to have special recognition. Plus, some of the best NFL defenders in today’s game are safeties.

Best safeties of all time

That being said, coming up with a list of the best safeties of all time wasn’t easy. Every generation has had exceptional players at that position, so we had to compare players who come from different generations while also comparing some of the best modern-day safeties to the greatest safeties in NFL history.

Nevertheless, we did the leg work and came up with a ranking of the 20 greatest safeties ever.

20. Sean Taylor

While his life and career were tragically cut short, Sean Taylor still deserves to be mentioned among the best safeties of all time. He had a standout college career at Miami, prompting Washington to draft him fifth overall in the 2004 NFL Draft.

Taylor stepped right into the starting lineup as a rookie and soon established himself as a top safety. He was tragically murdered midway through his fourth NFL season at 24. Taylor had made the Pro Bowl the previous season and was posthumously named to the Pro Bowl again in 2007. In all likelihood, Taylor would have gone on to have an impressive career and spend many years as one of the NFL’s best safeties.

19. Rodney Harrison

Rodney Harrison often received mixed reviews during his career, as he was often considered one of the dirtiest players in the NFL. But that also meant that he played hard and had the drive to win.

More importantly, Harrison played 15 seasons in the league, nine with the Chargers and six with the Patriots, helping New England win two Super Bowls. He battled injuries at times, which is part of the reason why he was limited to just two Pro Bowl and three All-Pro selections. But Harrison was still among the NFL’s best safeties for well over a decade.


18. Kam Chancellor

A neck injury in 2017 ended Kam Chancellor’s career prematurely after just eight seasons. But he spent those seasons as one of the most accomplished safeties in the game. Chancellor was a critical part of Seattle’s Legion of Boom secondary when the Seahawks won the Super Bowl.

He had 10 tackles, two defended passes, and an interception in the team’s Super Bowl win, eventually becoming a defensive captain for the Seahawks. Over his eight seasons in the league, Chancellor was a Pro Bowler four times and an All-Pro twice, which is exceptional for an overlooked player who was only a fifth-round pick.

17. LeRoy Butler

LeRoy Butler was at the heart of the Green Bay defense throughout the 1990s when the Packers were consistently among the best teams in the league. That earned him a spot on the 1990s All-Decade Team and eventually a place in the Hall of Fame.

Of course, his biggest contribution to football may have been the invention of the Lambeau Leap, for which he’s credited. Moreover, Butler played 12 seasons in the league, earning Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro honors four times each while collecting 38 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles, and 20.5 sacks.

16. Darren Woodson

Darren Woodson was a great player and an elite safety for a long time, spending all 13 of his NFL seasons with the Cowboys. He didn’t get much of an opportunity as a rookie, but by his third season, he had blossomed into one of the league’s premier safeties.

Starting in 1994, which was his third pro season, Woodson went to the Pro Bowl in five straight seasons, earning First-Team All-Pro honors in four of those seasons. He continued to be a solid safety late in his career as well, ultimately being a part of three Super Bowl wins.

15. Donnie Shell

Donnie Shell is a player from yesteryear, playing for the Steelers between 1974 and 1987 and being Pittsburgh’s starting safety for 11 consecutive years. During that time, he was a part of four teams that won the Super Bowl, being an overlooked but essential part of the Steel Curtain defense during that era.

During his prime, Shell went to the Pro Bowl in five straight seasons, which was enough to get him a spot in the Hall of Fame. Over his 201 games with the Steelers, which is the fourth-most in that franchise’s proud history, Shell amassed 51 interceptions, 19 recovered fumbles, and four defensive touchdowns.

14. Eric Berry

Injuries and illness played a big role in shortening Eric Berry’s career. He even beat cancer in the middle of his career, undergoing chemotherapy one offseason.

But whenever Berry was healthy, he was the best safety in the game, no questions asked. He spent nine seasons in the league, although he was only healthy enough to play a full season five times.

Of course, he was also a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time First-Team All-Pro selection. Naturally, Berry won Comeback Player of the Year in 2015 after beating cancer during the offseason. It was a short career, but Berry was still the best safety of the 2010s and among the best of all time.

13. John Lynch

Before he was an in-game commentator and a GM, John Lynch was one of the premier safeties in the NFL. He’s a member of both the Buccaneers and the Broncos team ring of honors, going to the Pro Bowl five times with Tampa and four times with the Broncos.

Lynch was revered throughout his career for his hard hits and willingness to play close to the line of scrimmage and help to stop the running game. He did a little bit of everything, collecting 26 interceptions, 16 forced fumbles, and 13 sacks during his 15 seasons in the league. Lynch was also a great leader, helping guide the Buccaneers to a Super Bowl victory as one of the veteran members of an outstanding defense, an accomplishment that ultimately helped get Lynch to the Hall of Fame.

12. Yale Lary

We have to turn back the clock for Yale Lary, who played between 1952 and 1964 outside of two years when he fought in Korea with the U.S. Army. He also could have been a pro baseball player after a standout college career at Texas A&M.

But Yary chose to play in the NFL, becoming one of the elite safeties of the 1950s and early 60s. He helped the Lions win three NFL championships, including titles in his first two seasons in the league. Lary was also a nine-time Pro Bowler and a five-time All-Pro, collecting 50 interceptions over his 11 seasons in the league, which was more than enough to put him in the Hall of Fame, although he was also a punter and kick returner, which didn’t hurt his cause.

11. Deron Cherry

During his 11 seasons in the league, all with the Chiefs, Deron Cherry did just about everything you could ask of a safety. He amassed 50 career interceptions in those 11 seasons, including four in one game to tie himself with the all-time record.

Cherry also had six seasons when he had 100 or more tackles while also having 15 career fumble recoveries on his resume. He was undoubtedly one of the premier safeties during the 1980s, making the All-Decade Team and going to the Pro Bowl in six consecutive seasons between 1983 and 1988, helping to make him one of the best defensive players the Chiefs have ever had. 

10. Steve Atwater

In 2020, Steve Atwater got his well-deserved selection to the Hall of Fame. His longevity and consistency are two things that most great safeties struggle to match. Atwater missed just nine games during his 11-season career, spending 10 of those 11 seasons with the Broncos.

In those 11 seasons, he was an eight-time Pro Bowler, earning a spot on the 1990s All-Decade Team. During his career, Atwater became best known for his physicality, always playing in the box and never shying away from contact.

He frequently delivered the type of bone-crushing hits that other safeties would shy away from making. Atwater also had a knack for showing up in big moments, playing one of his best games in the Super Bowl when the Broncos beat the Packers as double-digit underdogs.

9. Larry Wilson

Larry Wilson is an old-school player from the 1960s and early 70s, although he still deserves recognition as one of the best safeties of all time. He was so much more athletic than the average safety in his day, making Wilson one of the first free safeties to be used in a blitz package.

While he was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a six-time First-Team All-Pro selection, Wilson stood out the most in 1966 when he won Defensive Player of the League honors. He led the league with 10 interceptions that season, collecting an interception in seven straight games at one point. 

8. Brian Dawkins

Brian Dawkins was a standout safety with the Eagles for well over a decade, becoming one of the league’s elite safeties for much of that time. He was the textbook definition of a ball-hawking safety who also became a great leader, making him a beloved figure in Philadelphia.

His aggression helped Dawkins to collect 37 interceptions, 36 forced fumbles, and 19 recovered fumbles during his Hall of Fame career. Dawkins was also aggressive in going after the quarterback, amassing 26 sacks during his career from the safety position.

Even later in his career when he played three seasons for the Broncos, Dawkins maintained a high level of play, going to the Pro Bowl nine times during his career, including three times in his last four seasons. He never slowed down and was one of the most influential defensive players in the NFL during the 2000s.

7. Ken Houston

Ken Houston had a long and storied career, fittingly playing the first part of his career in Houston. By his second season in the league, Houston was a Pro Bowler, earning a Pro Bowl selection in 12 consecutive seasons, going every year except his first and last seasons in the NFL.

He was also an All-Pro selection during those 12 seasons, although only earned First-Team honors twice. Of his 49 career interceptions, 12 were returned for a touchdown.

During the 1971 season, Houston returned four picks for touchdowns, tying him with the all-time single-season record, leaving no question that he’s one of the greatest safeties in NFL history.

6. Troy Polamalu

Initially, Troy Polamalu garnered a lot of attention for his hair, although it didn’t take long for his play on the field to earn him just as much acclaim. He first made the Pro Bowl in his second season, soon becoming an integral part of the Steelers and one of the best safeties in the league.

Polamalu could cover as much ground as any safety of his era. He would often have the freedom to line up anywhere on the field and always found himself around the ball. Polamalu played a key role in the Steelers winning two Super Bowls and was named to the Pro Bowl eight times. He also won Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2010 and was named to the 2000s All-Decade Team.

5. Willie Wood

Willie Wood played quarterback in college but then made a seamless transition to playing safety in the NFL. He almost immediately became a starter at his new position, ultimately helping the Packers to win five championships, including the first two Super Bowls.

Wood started both Super Bowls and had an important interception in the second half of Super Bowl I to help secure the victory for Green Bay. In his exploits as a punt returner also helped Wood eventually earn a spot in the Hall of Fame. However, he had 48 career interceptions as a safety, leading the league during the 1962 season. He was also an eight-time Pro Bowler and a nine-time All-Pro, leaving no question that he was a special talent.

4. Emlen Tunnell

Emlen Tunnell has one of the most amazing stories in NFL history, going from an undrafted player to being one of the best safeties of all time. His college career was incomplete because Tunnell served during World War II, receiving a medal for saving lives.

But when he got a chance in the NFL, he made the most of it.

Tunnell was a First-Team All-Pro selection in his second pro season, quickly establishing himself as a top safety. Starting with the 1950 season, which was his third season in the league, Tunnell went to the Pro Bowl nine times in the next 10 years. With 79 career interceptions, which is just shy of the all-time record, Tunnell had a Hall of Fame career and was a member of the 1950s All-Decade Team

3. Paul Krause

With 16 seasons in the league, Paul Krause surely had the longevity of one of the top safeties in NFL history. Despite finishing second to teammate Charley Taylor in Rookie of the Year voting, Krause was a Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro during his rookie season in 1964 after leading the NFL in interceptions.

From the start of his career, Krause had a knack for picking off passes, something he continued to do throughout his career. After 16 seasons, Krause retired with the NFL’s all-time record of 81 interceptions, a record that still stands today. While only six of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, the eight-time Pro Bowler is still considered one of the best safeties of all time and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

2. Ed Reed

Long before he retired after the 2013 season, Ed Reed was considered among the best safeties of all time. That helped earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame in his first season of eligibility.

Reed was an immediate starter for the Ravens as a rookie and only needed until his second season to go to the Pro Bowl for the first of nine selections. By his third season, Reed won Defensive Player of the Year honors, establishing himself as one of the elite players in the game. In addition to helping Baltimore win a Super Bowl, Reed would lead the NFL in interceptions three times and was an All-Pro eight times, cementing his legacy as one of the best safeties ever.

1. Ronnie Lott

There should be no doubt that Ronnie Lott belongs at the top of this list. He was a star from his first day in the league, returning three interceptions for touchdowns during his rookie season, which remains tied with the all-time rookie record.

If not for the legendary Lawrence Taylor, Lott would have run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year honors. That being said, Lott was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie, something that happened in 10 of his first 11 seasons. He was also a First-Team All-Pro selection as a rookie and seven more times.

Lott would eventually lead the NFL in interceptions twice, amassing 63 picks during his Hall of Fame career, collecting as many as 10 in one season. His contributions also helped the 49ers to win four Super Bowls during the 1980s, a feat that may not have been accomplished without Lott.