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There has been a lot of change at the safety position over the last several seasons in the NFL. It looked like the league was beginning to lose interest in the position altogether, but free agency proved otherwise this offseason as players like Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, and Earl Thomas all inked massive new contracts.
Even as the usual stars continue to shine, the last three drafts have brought an influx of talent at safety. Three of the four All-Pros at the position in 2018 were in their first three seasons. There’s an exciting new energy at the position that I’ve always considered to be one of the most fun to watch in the entire game.
Taking a look at the top ten safeties in the NFL heading into the 2019 season will show you that the position is in good hands and will only continue to grow in popularity.
Because of an injury, we won’t see James for three months or so. His sophomore season is pretty much ruined, which rots considering how phenomenal he was as a rookie. In 2018, James recorded 105 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, 13 passes defensed, and three interceptions. He was seemingly everywhere at the right time. For his success, James made the Pro Bowl and was a First Team All-Pro.
If not for landing on IR after a Week 4 injury, Thomas was staring at another All-Pro year. The veteran safety had 22 combined tackles, five passes defensed and three interceptions through the first quarter of the season. Even though he’s 30, Thomas is still one of the most well-versed safeties in the NFL. There’s a great chance he goes right back to destroying offenses in 2019. Thomas is legitimately chasing a shot at the Hall of Fame.
Originally a fourth round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Jackson has already outperformed his draft positioning. After a solid rookie season, Jackson was a First Team All-Pro in 2018. In 14 games, he tallied 51 combined tackles, a sack, 15 passes defensed, six interceptions, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, and three defensive touchdowns. Jackson already has eight career interceptions and five total defensive touchdowns. He’s setting up for what will either be a monster encore in 2019 or a letdown season.
There isn’t a safety in the NFL that is more enjoyable to watch than Smith. He does a little bit of everything. He can cover man to man, although not at an elite level, he’s lethal in zone, and he can shut down the run game. The Vikings have also found ways to use Smith effectively in the pass rush. The Notre Dame product has made four consecutive Pro Bowls and was a Second Team All-Pro in 2018 after being a First Team All-Pro in 2017.
The Jets took Adams with the sixth overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He has not disappointed. In 2018, he posted 115 combined tackles, 3.5 sacks, 12 passes defensed, an interception, and three forced fumbles. Adams isn’t going to lead the NFL in interceptions any time soon, but he has incredible instincts and impacts the game in so many ways. There’s a reason why he was a Second Team All-Pro last season.
Byard entered the NFL in 2016 as an unassuming third round pick. Since then, he’s grown into a star at the safety position. In his second season, Byard led the NFL with eight interceptions. He was selected as a First Team All-Pro. Because of other young safeties, Byard failed to repeat as an All-Pro in 2018 despite making 90 combined tackles, defensing eight passes, and intercepting four balls.
The Honey Badger overcame self-created controversy in college to make it big in the NFL. Unfortunately, injuries dogged the early years of Mathieu’s career. An opportunity to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in 2015 was ruined by an injury. Mathieu was still a First Team All-Pro that year, but he hasn’t been an All-Pro or Pro Bowler since. 2018 was the Swiss army knife defensive back’s best year since 2015.
Jenkins will play any position the Eagles ask him to. He’s taken snaps at both safety positions, multiple cornerback spots, and linebacker. His versatility has earned him two consecutive Pro Bowl selections. Nearing 32, Jenkins is still playing at an elite level. Last season he recorded 97 combined tackles, a sack, eight passes defensed, an interception, and three forced fumbles.
In 2016, Collins was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and a First Team All-Pro. Opinions have cooled on the Alabama product since then. While Collins intercepted five passes and made four sacks in 2016, he hasn’t recorded a sack since had zero interceptions in 2018. While Collins has gone to three straight Pro Bowls, his limitations as a run-stopping safety are becoming more apparent by the year.
The three-time Second Team All-Pro is aging out of his prime at 32. However, McCourty is a staple of the Patriots dynasty. He’s won three Super Bowls with the team and has been one of the few defensive backs to consistently stick with New England. He truly is an underappreciated pillar of the Patriots and the NFL in general.
The former fifth round pick was a quiet starter for the Bears last season. While Jackson and Khalil Mack stole the spotlight, Amos moved into the honorable mention rankings. While he’ll continue to get better, 2017 and 2018 were Amos’ best seasons.
Hyde has quietly been performing well in Buffalo. He’s a big reason why the Bills had the top pass defense in 2018. Hyde made the Pro Bowl in 2017 when he intercepted five passes and defensed another 13. That performance earned his Second Team All-Pro honors. While Hyde didn’t repeat as an All-Pro in 2018, he’s still proven himself as a high-quality starter.
The 2016 first round pick made the Pro Bowl in 2017 after posting 116 combined tackles, six passes defensed, an interception, and three forced fumbles. Neal seemed primed for an even better year in 2018, but he was placed on IR after suffering an injury in Week 1. He’s set to return to his starting position in 2019.
If not for Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed, Weddle might have a Hall of Fame résumé. The long-time Charger played during the final years of Polamalu’s and Reed’s dominance at the safety position. He has put together a good career with six Pro Bowl appearances and five combined All-Pro selections. Despite not recording an interception in 2018, Weddle made a third straight Pro Bowl. It’s clear the 34-year-old isn’t an All-Pro anymore, but he still has plenty of leadership to offer in the Rams secondary.
The 2010 fifth overall pick has an incredible story. He’s battled through injuries and cancer on his way to five Pro Bowls and three First Team All-Pro selections. Unfortunately, injuries have limited Berry to just three games over the last two seasons. That’s largely why the high-profile veteran hasn’t signed with a team yet. No one is quite sure what the Hall of Fame hopeful has left to give.
There was a time where I argued that Clinton-Dix was a top ten safety in the NFL and that he would remain in that position for years. Things have unfolded a little differently. After a Pro Bowl season in 2016, the hype around Clinton-Dix’s upside has all but died. He’s now on his third team in as many years. Clinton-Dix is only entering his age 27 season. He could change the narrative of his career in Chicago.
Jones made Pro Bowls in 2015 and 2017. He’s risen and fallen out of the top ten safeties in the NFL multiple times. His play by season can be erratic, but his base stats tend to look good. With plenty of young safeties rising and the Dolphins headed for the NFL’s basement, the 31-year-old is at a crossroad.
The Bengals aren’t exactly an up-and-coming team, but Bates seems to have a bright future. The second round pick from Wake Forest had a borderline Pro Bowl season as a rookie. He recorded 111 combined tackles, seven passes defensed, three interceptions, and a defensive touchdown. With a little experience, Bates should climb into the top ten rankings.
When Hooker is healthy, he’s a solid player. I wouldn’t put him in that Pro Bowl range yet though. Through two seasons, the Ohio St. product has five interceptions in 21 appearances. In the horrendously weak Colts secondary, Hooker is the light for the future.
Brother of former Pro Bowler and current Carolina Panthers safety, Eric Reid, Justin has gotten off to a prolific start. The third round pick did a little bit of everything for the Texans. He made 88 combined tackles, defensed ten passes, recorded three interceptions, scored a defensive touchdown, and forced a fumble. Justin needs to be careful though. Eric also started off fast, making the Pro Bowl as a rookie and recording four interceptions. He hasn’t made a Pro Bowl since and has seven interceptions over the past five seasons.
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