Safeties are the last challenges the offense faces. Or in other words, they are the last hope for the defense. It is one of the most challenging and versatile roles in American football.
Safeties have to move around all over the field, and so many of the best safeties are the best defensive backs of all time as well. Their position is also a hybrid between linebackers and cornerbacks, and sometimes safeties switch their positions too.
The combination of the best linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties makes a perfect defense. Though safeties are often not given their due credit, their importance in the team’s victory is unquestionable.
There have been many great safeties in the NFL who were the pillar of the defense at their time. They made the game more interesting and famous. So, in this article, we are featuring the 10 best safeties of all time in the NFL.
Best Safeties of All Time
Being the last line of defense, the main objective of the safety is not to let anyone get past him. But that is not all, as he plays some other roles as well. A safety often plays the role of a fourth linebacker to support the run.
A good safety player requires to have speed, vision, quickness, instincts, toughness, and great size. You can see that safeties have a rare combination of size and speed, which makes them unique and special.
As tough as it is to be a good safety, again, many players were a great combination of these traits. They were fast, had cat-like quickness and instinct, and had a large physical frame.
While making a list, we compared safeties across different generations, their statistics, contribution, and individual achievements. So, here are our final 10 best safeties of all time in the history of the NFL.
From the stats and short bio of these players mentioned below, you will understand why they are considered the best of all time.
1. Ronnie Lott
|Full Name||Ronald Mandel Lott|
|Date of Birth||May 8, 1959|
|Place of Birth||Albuquerque, New Mexico|
|NFL Draft||1981 (San Francisco 49ers, Round: 1 / Pick: 8)|
|Teams||San Francisco 49ers, Kansas City Chiefs, Los Angeles Raiders, New York Jets|
Super Bowl Champion: 4 times ( XVI, XIX, XXIII, XXIV)
First-team All-Pro: 8 times (1981, 83, 1986–1991)
Pro Bowl: 10 times 1981–1984, 1986–1991)
NFL Interception Leader: 2 times (1986, 1991)
Some players are multi-talented. While others struggle to be good players in one position, players like Ronnie Lott become great in multiple positions. Lott was a complete defensive back package. You could have him play as a cornerback or a safety, and he would excel in each position.
After an amazing college career, Lott was drafted into the NFL in 1981. He was the pick number eight in the draft and was recruited by the San Francisco 49ers. Lott had a tremendous first season in the NFL and set a record for most interceptions returned for a touchdown (3) in a season by a rookie.
Lott could not win the rookie of the award, as in the same season, another legend Lawrence Taylor had a terrific run. However, he still made the mark that put him into the discussion.
Lott was the key player for pass deflection for the 49ers in the nineties. Lott is a four-time Super Bowl champion, a ten-time pro bowler, and eight times first-team all-pro.
From his 192 game appearances, he made a total of 1146 tackles along with 63 interceptions and five defensive touchdowns, making him the top player in our list of best defensive backs of all time.
Career stats of Ronnie Lott:
2. Ed Reed
|Full Name||Edward Earl Reed Jr.|
|Date of Birth||September 11, 1978|
|Place of Birth||St. Rose, Louisiana, U.S.|
|Height||5 ft 11 in|
|NFL Draft||2002 ( Baltimore Ravens, Pick: 24)|
|Teams||Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Houston Texans|
Super Bowl Champion: 1 time (XLVII)
First-team All-Pro: 5 times (2004, 2006–2008, 2010)
Pro Bowl: 9 times (2003, 2004, 2006–2012)
Defensive Player of the Year: 1 time (2004)
NFL interception Leader: 3 times (2004, 08, 2010)
During the 2002 NFL draft, perhaps nobody thought the 24-years old Louisianian would make a place among the best safeties of all time. Reed was the 24th pick in that draft and was recruited by the Baltimore Ravens.
Reed quickly made a place for himself in the limelight with his tackling ability. In 2004, just two years after his draft, Reed was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He is a five-time first-team all-pro and nine times pro bowler. He was in excellent form throughout his career.
With 1,590, Reed holds the record for interception return yards. Reed also holds some other records in the NFL, including longest interception (108 yards) returns, most career postseason interceptions (9), and most seasons (3) leading the league in interceptions.
There have been very few safeties as great as Reed. He made seven defensive touchdowns in his career. He was included in the NFL 2000s all-decade team.
After having a legendary career, he retired in 2013 but was not detached from pro football. He started working as a coach and is currently the head coach of Bethune–Cookman. Reed received his Pro Football Hall of Fame recognition in 2019.
Career stats of:
3. Emlen Tunnell
|Full Name||Emlen Lewis Tunnell|
|Date of Birth||March 29, 1924|
|Place of Birth||Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania|
|Height||6 ft 1 in|
|NFL Draft||1948, Undrafted|
|Teams||New York Giants and Green Bay Packers|
NFL Champion: 2 times (1956, 1961)
First-team All-Pro: 6 times (1949, 1951, 52, 1954–1956)
Pro Bowl: 9 times (1950–1957, 59)
Emlen Tunnell has a ready story for a super hit Hollywood movie. The legend was undrafted in the 1948 draft! But as he was destined to be a legend, he got the opportunity to play for the New York Giants and quickly proved his worth by being in the first-team all-pro in 1949.
In his career, Tunnel would win two NFL championships and become a 9 times pro bowler, along with six times first-team all-pro. Tunnell was included in the NFL 1950s all-decade team.
He played a total of 167 games and recorded 79 interceptions, along with 258 punt returns, before retiring in 1961 as one of the best safeties of all time.
Career stats of Emlen Tunnell:
4. Ken Houston
|Full Name||Kenneth Ray Houston|
|Date of Birth||November 12, 1944|
|Place of Birth||Lufkin, Texas|
|Height||6 ft 3 in|
|NFL Draft||1967 (Houston Oilers, Round: 9 / Pick: 214)|
|Teams||Houston Oilers and Washington Redskins|
First-Team All-Pro: 2 times (1975, 1978)
Pro Bowl: 12 times (1968–1979)
Defensive Player of the Year
The 12 times pro bowler Ken Houston is one of the best defensive backs of all time. He was drafted into the NFL in 1967, and from 1968 to 1979, he never missed the pro bowler list. He is also a two times first-team all-pro.
Houston started his pro football career with Houston Oilers, where he played for six seasons, then joined the Washington Redskins. He is among the 80 Greatest Redskins. Houston holds the record for the most interceptions returned for touchdowns in a season (4).
He played a total of 196 games and made 49 interceptions, along with 21 fumbles recovered. Houston became an idol for the next generations, and he was honored with the Texas Sports Hall of Fame for his contribution to the fame of Texas Sports.
Though Houston had great success in his professional career, his early career was not so smooth. Huston was offered a scholarship by Bishop college, but they withdrew it. Then he attended Prairie View A&M College and played for the college team.
Career stats of Ken Houston:
5. Paul Krause
|Full Name||Paul James Krause|
|Date of Birth||February 19, 1942|
|Place of Birth||Flint, Michigan|
|Height||6 ft 3 in|
|NFL Draft||1964 (Washington Redskins, Round: 2 / Pick: 18)|
|Teams||Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings|
First-Team All-Pro: 3 times (1964, 65, 1975)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (1964, 65, 69, 1971–1975)
NFL interception Leader: 1 time (1964)
Paul Krause has the record for most interceptions (81) in the NFL. His professional career started in 1964 when the Washington Redskins signed him. In his first year, he was so close to becoming the rookie of the year but lost to his fellow teammate Charley Taylor.
Krause had a long career of 16 years and played 226 games. Throughout his career, he was always on point while picking off passes. Despite not winning any major titles, Krause is considered in the same league of the best safeties of all time.
Career stats of Paul Krause :
6. Willie Wood
|Full Name||William Vernell Wood Sr.|
|Date of Birth||December 23, 1936|
|Place of Birth||Washington, D.C.|
|Height||5 ft 10|
|NFL Draft||1960, Undrafted|
|Teams||Green Bay Packers|
|Death||February 3, 2020|
NFL Champion: 5 times (1961, 62, 1965–1967)
Super Bowl Champion: 2 times (I, II)
First-Team All-Pro: 5 times (1964–1967, 1969)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (1962, 1964–1970)
NFL Interception Leader: 1 time (1962)
Wood will come on top among the most successful safeties with his 5 NFL championships and 2 Super Bowl championships.
Like Tunnell, Wood was also undrafted in 1960. But that could not demotivate him from playing football. He kept trying and finally got to play for the Green Bay Packers. And in 1961, he showed his range of talent by playing a major role in the Packers’ NFL championship win.
Wood had been a dominant figure in the defense in the sixties and helped the Packers win 5 NFL championships and 2 Super Bowls in the span of ten years. Wood himself became a nine-time all-pro and 8 times pro bowler.
Wood announced his retirement in 1971 after having a successful career. He played a total of 166 games and made 48 interceptions.
Career stats of Willie Wood:
7. Rodney Harrison
|Full Name||Rodney Scott Harrison|
|Date of Birth||December 15, 1972|
|Place of Birth||Markham, Illinois|
|Height||6 ft 1 in|
|NFL Draft||1994 (San Diego Chargers, Round: 5 / Pick: 145)|
|Teams||San Diego Chargers and New England Patriots|
Super Bowl Champion: 2 times (XXXVIII, XXXIX)
First-Team All-Pro: 2 times (1998, 2003)
Pro Bowl: 2 times (1998, 2001)
Rodney Harrison received a mixed reaction, both appreciation, and criticism, in his career. While some would call him the dirtiest player of the game, some would call him the most dedicated win player.
Harrison had to fight the injuries several times in his career, which impacted his achievements. Yet he managed to become a two-times pro bowler and two-time first-team all-pro. But most importantly, Harrison won 2 Super Bowls with the New England Patriots.
Harrison became the first player to score touchdowns on an interception return, fumble return, and kickoff return in the same season. He achieved this feat in 1997. Harrison also recorded 30.5 sacks, the most by a safety, and is an all-time tackles leader (33) in the Super Bowl.
Only 12 players have recorded twenty or more sacks and interceptions in the NFL, and Harrison is one of them. With so much achievement by his name, Rodney Harrison places amongst the best safeties of all time.
Career stats of Rodney Harrison:
8. Larry Wilson
|Full Name||Larry Frank Wilson|
|Date of Birth||March 24, 1938|
|Place of Birth||Rigby, Idaho|
|Height||6 ft 0 in|
|NFL Draft||1960 (St. Louis Cardinals, Round: 7 / Pick: 74)|
|Teams||St. Louis Cardinals|
First-Team All-Pro: 6 times (1963, 1966–1970)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (1962, 63, 1965–1970)
Defensive Player of the Year: 1 time (1966)
NFL interception Leader: 1 time (1966)
Larry Wilson is often underappreciated, though. His personal achievement is a long list that includes eight first-team all-pro, eight pro bowlers, one Defensive player of the year award, one NFL interception leader award, etc.
Wilson was drafted into the NFL in 1960 and immediately became a top player for the St. Louis Cardinals. Wilson showed much skill and adaptability in his college career. However, he was not picked until the 7th round. His small size was the main reason for it. 6ft tall was not considered tall enough for a defensive back during that time.
The interesting fact is that Larry never played as a safety before joining the Cardinals. He initially played as an Offense in his college career, then switched to the cornerback position.
In a preseason game in 1960, Wilson got to play as a safety for the first time, and he was impressive. Since then, he has become permanent in the position.
Wilson retired in 1972 and started his coaching career in 1973 with the Cardinals. Wilson became a Pro Football Hall of Famer in 1978.
Career stats of Larry Wilson:
9. Steve Atwater
|Full Name||Stephen Dennis Atwater|
|Date of Birth||October 28, 1966|
|Place of Birth||Chicago, Illinois, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 3 in|
|NFL Draft||1989 (Denver Broncos, Round: 1 / Pick: 20)|
|Teams||Denver Broncos and New York Jets|
Super Bowl Champion: 2 times (XXXII, XXXIII)
First-Team All-Pro: 2 times (1991, 1992)
Pro Bowl: 8 times (1990–1996, 98)
The Denver Broncos drafted Steve Atwater in 1989, where he remained for ten seasons. During this time, Atwater helped the Broncos win two Super Bowls.
In his second season, he became a pro bowler, marking the first of his seven consecutive pro bowl awards. He became a total of eight times pro bowlers.
Atwater was aggressive, and his bone-crushing hits made him popular among the Broncos fans. He made a name for himself by being engaged in extreme physicality during the matches and would never shy away from contact.
Winning eight pro bowls in a decade made him a member of the NFL 1990s all-decade team. He delivered one of the best defensive performances in a Super Bowl in Super Bowl XXXII by recording six solo tackles, one sack, two passes defended, and a forced fumble.
Steve Atwater, one of the best safeties of all time, received his Pro Football Hall of Fame recognition in 2020.
Career stats of Steve Atwater:
10. Darren Woodson
|Full Name||Darren Ray Woodson|
|Date of Birth||April 25, 1969|
|Place of Birth||Phoenix, Arizona, U.S.|
|Height||6 ft 1 in|
|NFL Draft||1992 (Dallas Cowboys, Round: 2 / Pick: 37)|
Super Bowl Champion: 3 times (XXVII, XXVIII, XXX)
First-team All-Pro: 4 times (1994–1996, 98)
Pro Bowl: 5 times (1994–1998)
The Dallas Cowboys drafted Darren Woodson in 1992. Woodson had an 11-year-long career, and during this time, The Cowboys won three Super Bowls.
Though Woodson had a good record in College, that did not help him much in the Pro League. As a rookie, he did not get many chances to play in his first couple of years. However, by his third season, he became an elite safety and was named a pro bowler.
Woodson remained a top safety of the tournament for the next few seasons, being named a 5-times pro bowler and 4-times all-pro.
Woodson had skills for both the run and the pass. Woodson would often turn into a fourth cornerback for his team on the field. Because of his versatility, Woodson is often called the most productive player on the best defense in the NFL.
Career stats of Darren Woodson:
The role of safety may sound simple on paper, considering he has a lineup of defenders to stop the offense. However, their ability to handle the pressure of being the last line of defense deserves more praise.
The players on the list gave their best effort for their teams’ victories. Their contribution both in and outside the field is remarkable. They have inspired thousands of youngsters. They will always be considered the best safeties of all time in the NFL.
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