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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Top-20 Safeties in NFL History

Top-20 Safeties in NFL History

The greatest at their position
Publish Date: 08/21/2021
Fact checked by: Mark Lewis
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - CIRCA 1990: Ronnie Lott #42 of the San Francisco 49ers in action during an NFL football game circa 1990 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. Lott played for the 49ers from 1981-90. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)

20) Brian Dawkins

Dawkins defined the word leader, both vocally and with his attacking style of play. His contributions as the anchor on many of his defenses cannot be measured because they were physiological and gave his team a competitive edge when they needed it most.

Dawkins does have numbers to back up my case, too.

He has 37 career interceptions, 1,118 tackles, and is a six-time All-Pro.

19) John Lynch

Lynch played the game like hard-hitting safeties Ronnie Lott, and Steve Atwater did before him. He put his body on the line every Sunday, and receivers were hesitant to go across the middle in the 1990s and 2000s whenever they played the Buccaneers.

18) Darren Woodson

He is the team’s all-time leader in tackles with 1,350 and had a nose for the football, hauling in 23 interceptions for Big D.

Woodson was a premier hitter, too. His big body allowed him to deliver the huge hits, and running backs remembered the pain he brought daily. No. 28 didn’t have the longest career, but he was among the best in his prime.

17) Jack Tatum

A crushing hitter in the open field, Tatum was nicknamed “The Assassin” by his teammates and is known for his hit on Patriots wide receiver Darryl Stingley that paralyzed him, along with a helmet-popping hit on a Vikings receiver in Super Bowl XI.

He finished his career with 37 interceptions and was a three-time Pro Bowler, but a small number of defensive backs were more aggressive tacklers than Tatum.

16) Sean Taylor

He would be top-5, maybe number one, with a complete career. However, during his short career, he was as good as anybody that ever played the position.

15) Jake Scott

Scott was a key member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins undefeated season and was named Super Bowl MVP of Super Bowl VII, recording two interceptions in the Dolphins’ 14-7 win over the Washington Redskins including one in the fourth quarter.ย He helped the Dolphins in their 24-7 Super Bowl VIII win, recording two fumble recoveries, 20 punt return yards, and 47 kickoff return yards in that game. He established 2 Super Bowl Records. Jake set a record by being the first player to recover 2 fumbles in one game. He also first established the record for most career fumble recoveries in Super Bowls at two, a record now shared by 12 others. Scott is still the only player to have recovered one of his own team’s fumbles and his opponent’s fumbles.

Overall, Scott finished his nine seasons with 49 interceptions. Although, he made 35 interceptions playing 6 seasons for Miami, making him the Dolphins’ all-time leader in that category. Scott had 13 fumble recoveries in his career. He gained 1,357 yards and a touchdown returning punts and 137 yards on special teams on six kickoff returns.

14) Dennis Smith

Smith established himself as one of the most feared and hardest-hitting safeties in the NFL (a reputation later held by his protรฉgรฉ, Steve Atwater). Smith was voted to play in six Pro Bowls (following the 1985โ€“1986, 1989โ€“1991, and 1993 seasons), was named All-American Football Conference (AFC) in 1984 and 1988… He played on three Broncos Super Bowl teams (XXI, XXII, XXIV) and was named All-Pro four times.

Smith’s career totals include 1,171 tackles, 30 interceptions, and 15 sacks. He posted a career-high five interceptions in 1991. He ranks fourth all-time among Denver Broncos in games played with the franchise. With 184.

Video: Dennis Smith Former Broncos Safety (made with Spreaker)

Dennis Smith Former Broncos Safety (made with Spreaker)

13) Kenny Easley

Easley was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1984 from his safety spot after returning two of his league-leading 10 interceptions for touchdowns.

A miserable kidney disease allowed Easley to only play from 1981-1987, but there weren’t many better during that stretch.

12) Steve Atwater

Atwater averaged 149 tackles from 1989-1993 and finished his career as a Bronco with 1,038 tackles in 10-years.

11) Eddie Meador

Eddie Meador was an undersized safety that was always in the right place at the right time. You have, I’m sure, heard of the Fearsome Foursome? Will as a testament to how good Eddie Meador was, he was the captain of that team.

It still holds 5 Rams teams records to this day, including most interceptions with 46. Eddie was also named to the NFL’s all-decade team for the 1960s. Meador not being in the hall of fame will show you how ridiculous the voters are at times. Eddie Meador DESERVES to be in the hall of fame!

10) Yale Lary

He finished his career with the Lions, having picked off 50 passes during the wonder years for Detroit in the 1950s and 1960s. The Lions’ last line of defense averages nearly 16-yards per interception return, a highly respectable number.

9) Emlen Tunnell

Tunnell not only finished his 14-year career (with the Giants then Packers) with a then-record 79 interceptions, he was the first African-American ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1967.

8) Willie Wood

In the first Super Bowl, wood’s most memorable play came when he took back an interception 50-yards for a score, opening the floodgates to a 35-10 win.

He retired in 1971 as an eight-time Pro Bowler with 48 career interceptions.

7) Deron Cherry

Cherry was another “do-it-all” defensive back like many of the players on this list and was handsomely rewarded for his stellar play by being named to six Pro Bowl teams.

He was a member of the Chiefs from 1981-1991, accumulated 50 interceptions, and had six 100-tackle seasons.

6) Troy Polamalu

The heart-and-soul of the Steelers chases down running backs and quarterbacks alike, trademark locks flying in the wind, with more passion and speed than I’ve ever seen.

He is equally as valuable against the pass, where he usually is in the right spot at the right time and has displayed some of his most acrobatic interceptions in the most crucial moments for Pittsburgh.

5) Ed Reed

He’s a fine run-stuffer ready to take on any size back and always makes a big return following one of his interceptions.

Reed was deservedly named the Defensive Player of the Year in 2004. He’s a seven-time First-Team All-Pro and has 56 career picks and counting.

4) Larry Wilson

He revolutionized the “safety blitz” that we see in every game today and finished his career with a whopping 52 interceptions. Not many safeties were more complete than Larry Wilson.

Video: Larry Wilson Highlight Video

Larry Wilson Highlight Video

3) Ken Houston

As a member of the Oilers and Redskins, Ken Houston totaled 49 interceptions and scored 12 touchdowns.

Inย 1971, he set an NFL record with five touchdown returns (four interceptions and one fumble). The record would stand until Devin Hester broke the record in 2006.

Houston really did it all. Outside of being a play-making safety, he returned kicks and punts and recovered 21 fumbles in his illustrious time as a professional.

2) Paul Krause

Krause intercepted 81 passes in his career with the Redskins and Vikings, 12 of which came in a breakout rookie campaign of 1964.

This man could flat-out intercept the football.

In his first season in the NFL, Krause had a pick in seven straight games and almost matched that total in 1968 when he intercepted a pass in six straight games.

1) Ronnie Lott

Lott was totally fearless but didn’t play out of control. He was always a step ahead of the offense and knew when to wrap up and when he could really lay out an opposing receiver.

Along with his intimidating style of play, Lott was an elite ball-hawk, reeling in 63 interceptions with the 49ers, Raiders, Jets, and Chiefs, returning five of them for touchdowns.

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