The impact of elite NFL Safeties

If I were to ask you to list the five most important positions in the NFL, what would you say? Undoubtedly, a quarterback would be first on the list, followed by pass rushers, left tackles, cornerbacks and possibly wide receivers or trench players.

However, I believe the most underappreciated and underrated position in the NFL is the safety position.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I believe the aforementioned positions are very valuable. It’s hard to win without a quarterback. It’s also hard to win without players getting pressure on the quarterback, or without players protecting the quarterback. Still, I think “elite” NFL safeties are the rarest and important breed of football players you could possibly have on your team.

I would go as far as to say elite NFL quarterbacks are easier to come by than elite safeties.

Think about it. In the NFL right now we have Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson, Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and possibly more (depending on your own personal view of the term “elite”). This list doesn’t include some recently retired players like Peyton Manning, Tony Romo, Kurt Warner, or Brett Favre, as well as players on the fringe of “eliteness” like Cam Newton, Derek Carr, etc.

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Now think about all of the elite safeties to play over the last 15 years. I’m talking about the best of the best; the safeties that are a cut above the rest. There aren’t nearly as many. In fact, in my research and observation over the past decade-and-a-half of watching football, there are only five players I would put in that category.

Here is my list of the safeties that have had the most impact for their teams over the past 15 NFL seasons:

Player Team TT Games TT INT TT PD TT FF TT FR TT Sacks TT TFL Total “Big Plays” “Big Plays” Per Game
Ed Reed BAL 174 64 140 11 10 6 32 263 1.51
Troy Polamalu PIT 158 32 110 14 7 12 47 222 1.41
Devin McCourty NE 107 19 70 9 2 2 15 117 1.09
Earl Thomas SEA 107 23 57 9 5 0 11 105 0.98
Bob Sanders IND 49 6 15 2 3 3.5 8 38 0.76

As you can see, this group has made a pretty substantial impact on the game. This list doesn’t even include players like Brian Dawkins, Rodney Harrison, and John Lynch, who’s prime fell between 15-20 seasons ago. There are a just a few others even in consideration for elite safeties in this era: Eric Berry, Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Weddle, Harrison Smith, or Kam Chancellor, for example. These players are right on the fringe for me, but even if I included them in this list, it’s still shorter than the list of elite quarterbacks to roll through the NFL over the last decade.

The problem is defining: what makes a player elite?

In my opinion, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are in a class of their own. Bob Sanders was an elite difference maker when he was healthy, while Thomas and McCourty are two of the top safeties in the game today.

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Apart from a list of impressive statistics on the field, it’s even more compelling what these players have helped their teams accomplish in the big games. Take a look at the Super Bowls these five safeties have been involved with:

Player Team Year(s) in Super Bowl Super Bowl Wins Def. MVPs
Troy Polamalu PIT 2006, 2009, 2011 2 1
Ed Reed BAL 2013 1 1
Bob Sanders IND 2007 1 1
Earl Thomas SEA 2014, 2015 1 0
Devin McCourty NE 2012, 2015, 2017 2 0

Astonishingly, these five safeties have been a part of ten Super Bowl appearances in the last 11 years. Of those appearances, they combined for seven Super Bowl wins and three Defensive Player of the Year awards (Ed Reed’s came just before this, in 2004).

Here’s a chart showing the Super Bowls that have represented at least one of these top five safeties over the last 12 years.

Years with Top Tier Safety in SB Years without Top Tier Safety in SB
2006 2005
2007 2008
2009 2013
2010 2016
2011
2012
2014
2015
2017

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that these safeties won Super Bowls single-handedly. That wouldn’t be true. Ed Reed had Ray Lewis, Polamalu had James Harrison, Devon McCourty had Tom Brady, Earl Thomas had a great supporting cast, and Bob Sanders had Peyton Manning.

However, these Super Bowl wins are a team effort. Though they couldn’t have pulled it off without help, they were all integral parts that their teams desperately relied upon. They also proved to be some of the most impactful defensive players of their time.

The NFL shows you how they view safeties – and it doesn’t come with a lot of love. Look at the average yearly pay of current NFL cornerbacks compared to safeties:

Corner Team Total Avg./Year Safety Team Total Avg./Year
Trumaine Johnson Rams $16,742,400 $16,742,400 Eric Berry Chiefs $78,000,000 $13,000,000
Josh Norman Redskins $75,000,000 $15,000,000 Tyrann Mathieu Cardinals $62,500,407 $12,500,081
Patrick Peterson Cardinals $70,050,000 $14,010,000 Reshad Jones Dolphins $48,000,000 $12,000,000
Richard Sherman Seahawks $56,000,000 $14,000,000 Harrison Smith Vikings $51,250,000 $10,250,000
Desmond Trufant Falcons $68,750,000 $13,750,000 Earl Thomas Seahawks $40,000,000 $10,000,000
Joe Haden Browns $67,500,000 $13,500,000 Devin McCourty Patriots $47,500,000 $9,500,000
A.J. Bouye Jaguars $67,500,000 $13,500,000 Malcolm Jenkins Eagles $35,000,000 $8,750,000
Stephon Gilmore Patriots $65,000,000 $13,000,000 Jairus Byrd Saints $52,500,000 $8,750,000
Janoris Jenkins Giants $62,500,000 $12,500,000 Tony Jefferson Ravens $34,000,000 $8,500,000
Darius Slay Lions $48,000,000 $12,000,000 Tashaun Gipson Jaguars $36,000,000 $7,200,000
Byron Maxwell Dolphins $63,000,000 $10,500,000 Kam Chancellor Seahawks $28,002,008 $7,000,502
Dre Kirkpatrick Bengals $52,500,000 $10,500,000 Rodney McLeod Eagles $35,000,000 $7,000,000
Jimmy Smith Ravens $41,102,000 $10,275,500 Darian Stewart Broncos $28,000,000 $7,000,000
Logan Ryan Titans $30,000,000 $10,000,000 Aaron Williams Bills $26,007,844 $6,501,961
Sean Smith Raiders $38,000,000 $9,500,000 Barry Church Jaguars $26,000,000 $6,500,000

It’s the same with many other positions too. I’m not saying that on average safeties should be higher paid than corners: but elite NFL safeties don’t get the credit they deserve.According to Overthecap.com, 14 cornerbacks make as much money or more per year than Earl Thomas and Devin McCourty. Trumaine Johnson of the Rams makes nearly as much as the two combined. Again, don’t get me wrong: I believe cornerbacks are important. But does Byron Maxwell or Logan Ryan really make a bigger difference in the game than Earl Thomas?

Sometimes we use coin the term “dime-a-dozen” when referring to a particular group, such as running backs or wide receivers. And yes, there are many safeties that fall into that category. However, when it comes to elite safeties, they may just be the hardest players to find in all of football. To me, it’s not a coincidence that the best safeties in the league have been incredibly successful in helping their teams win.

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