In a lot of ways, safeties are the least valuable players on a defense. They get paid the least on average, and are rarely drafted higher than late in the first round. However, this may have more to do with the distribution of talent at the position; the overwhelming majority of players at safety are marginally replaceable. While this makes for a lot of turnover at the position for many teams, it also makes the top players at the position all the more valuable.
It is rare to have a safety who is capable of contributing to every single part of a defensive play; tackling, ability to engage blockers well, man and zone coverage skills, and reliable blitzing. Most safeties are only good at one of these things while offering average or worse performance at the rest. In his prime not too long ago, Troy Polamalu was one of these rare safeties that could do it all, carrying the performance of an entire defense. His coverage and run support were so good that coaches eventually allowed him to freelance to a degree, letting him stray from his responsibility if he felt a better decision could be made in the moment. There aren’t many players who could jump the snap perfectly to make a big stop, and aside from Ray Lewis, Polamalu is the only one I know who could do it consistently.
Tier 1: Eric Weddle, Earl Thomas
1. Weddle: I was very tempted to leave Weddle alone in this tier, as I believe he is one of these “do it all” safeties. Usually he is in the traditional center field spot, but the Chargers move him all over the field, playing him in linebacker spots, allowing him to blitz or funneling a run play towards him. His coverage skills have been extremely good for a safety, displaying very good range and performing well despite playing behind a very bad defense. With improved surrounding talent this year, I expect Weddle to clearly establish himself as the #1 safety in the league.
2. I’ve always had a high opinion of Thomas but was hesitant to put him in the same tier as Weddle. Thomas has always played behind a great defense, and more importantly, two of the top 10 defensive backs in the league (Sherman and Chancellor). He rarely comes out of his centerfield position, but this fits what the Seahawks do as they funnel all their coverages towards him. Thanks to his tremendous range, they are able to run an extremely effective cover 3 scheme. Thomas has 8 interceptions in the last two years, despite getting targeted just 68 times over that period. He does miss a good amount of tackles (31 over the last two years) but considering how exceptional his coverage skills are, he has an argument for the title of best safety in the league.
Tier 2: Kam Chancellor, Jairus Byrd
3. Chancellor: There are many moments when I watch a Seahawks game and end up feeling that Chancellor is a better player than the other half of his tandem. While Thomas spends most of his time far from the line of scrimmage, Chancellor spends a lot of time prowling the middle of the field, deterring receivers from catching passes and laying down big hits on opposing running backs. At 6’3” 232 lbs. Chancellor is by far the biggest safety in the league, and his physicality leads to very careful game planning about which offensive players to throw in his direction. Anyone who saw his hit on Wes Welker in the Super Bowl knows the type of fear he can inject into an opposing offense. While I do believe that Chancellor is a more complete player, Thomas’ coverage skills are too much more valuable in such a passing driven league, so Thomas gets the top tier.
4. Byrd: When playing to his potential, Byrd is every bit as good as Earl Thomas. He has phenomenal range for a safety, to go along with elite ball skills. He doesn’t spend a lot of time focusing on the run beyond cleanup tackles, but you wouldn’t want him to because he has so much value against the passing game. He puts a stopper on how many big plays a passing offense can produce, while proving to be a major turnover threat. He played pretty poorly in his first game as a Saint, giving up way too much space in what were mostly cover 2 formations, so I bumped him down slightly. Fortunately, he excels in man coverage which is the foundation of defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s defensive scheme, so I would expect much better things from him as the season goes on.
Tier 3: Harrison Smith, Devin McCourty, TJ Ward, Donte Whitner, Eric Berry, Antrel Rolle
This tier is littered with solid players who are mostly young up and comers. Smith, Berry, McCourty, and Ward are all young players (Ward is the only one not still on his rookie contract) that have not realized their ceilings. They have all been every down players from day one, providing a good mix of run and pass defense. Berry and McCourty are more tilted towards traditional free safeties who play the back end, while Smith and Ward are better fits at strong safety closer to the line of scrimmage. That said, they are all capable of flexing between the two fits, except maybe McCourty who was originally drafted as a corner. The two veterans on this list are Whitner and Rolle, who have provided consistent performance over a long period. While I’ve always had a positive opinion of Whitner, I’m a little surprised that I have put Rolle on this list. He’s looked very stiff in coverage throughout the last few years, but the Giants seem to do a very good job of hiding his weaknesses and keeping plays in front of him. As long as he keeps playing downhill, his physicality represents a noteworthy obstacle for opposing defenses against both the pass and run.
Just missed: Reggie Nelson
On the rise: Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid, James Ihedigbo