Dylan’s top 10 safeties heading into 2015/16

After exploring the cornerback position last time out, we remain in the secondary this week and turn our attention to safety. Whether they are the last line of defense as a free safety, or extra coverage for the run-stuffing linebackers, patrolling the middle of the field at strong safety, it’s one of the most important and versatile positions in the game, and here are my top ten heading into 2015/16.


10. Jairus Byrd

Perhaps an addition to the list that some may not agree with, but I have not given up on Byrd just yet, and there’s always room on a speculative opinion piece for a hunch pick. Byrd managed only four games last year due to injury after joining New Orleans in a high profile free-agent deal from Buffalo, and the pressure is on for him to justify the hype generated by years of excellent play for the Bills. He is a true ball-hawk, recording 22 interceptions over his first five seasons in the league, and will no doubt be an elite game-changer for Sean Payton’s team if he can remain fit in 2015. I’m expecting the Saints to be a better team all-round in 2015, and I’m banking on Byrd to be a key figure.


9. Antoine Bethea

If you want to talk about consistency, Antoine Bethea has played in every game over the course of the last seven seasons as both an Indianapolis Colt and San Francisco 49er. Over a nine-year career, he’s recorded at least 90 tackles seven times, and in 2014 posted a career-high four interceptions and 10 defensed passes. I must admit, the 49ers look a mess to me this year, and Bethea will be absolutely essential to any success they have. His ability to swiftly anticipate plays and intelligence in coverage are huge strengths, and make up for the fact that athletically he is perhaps not on par with the players who will be listed above him. He is technically superb, illustrated by his missing just 13 tackles in 2014, successfully making 83. A leader and a hugely talented player, there were many safeties vying for a spot on this list, but I am confident Bethea deserves his place.


8. Tashaun Gipsom

In 2014 Gipsom had the best year of his career to date, recording six interceptions and a forced fumble as part of an underrated Cleveland secondary. He was targeted 20 times, allowing a reception percentage of 60%, and according to Profootballfocus.com, a quarterback rating of just 41.9, the second lowest of any safety on this list. Not the most powerful tackler, he is better when in pursuit, but what he lacks in run stopping ability he more than makes up for elsewhere. Cleveland are a team with some glaring weaknesses, but their secondary is not one of them, and that is due, in large part, to Gipsom.


7. Devin McCourty

The leader of the Super Bowl winning Patriots secondary, perhaps I’ve placed McCourty a touch low, with his experience and flexibility making him a truly elite player at the position. However, heading into 2015 in a new look unit without the likes of Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner, McCourty will have his work cut out, and perhaps that has clouded my thoughts when I think of his expected performance this season. McCourty totaled 56 solo tackles and just 6 missed attempts last season, along with three interceptions. He is smart, quick and versatile, and has all the tools necessary to justify a higher placing, I just have a gut feeling the New England defense is going to face a drop-off year, with McCourty part of that.


6. George Iloka

The Bengals’ safety allowed just 12 receptions from 31 targets in 2014, a remarkable 38.7 completion percentage, by far the best of anyone on this list. He also conceded just 176 receiving yards, giving him a Yards Per Coverage Snap allowed average of 0.28, and according to Profootballfocus, his allowed quarterback rating of just 18.4 was by far and away the lowest of anyone who made my top 10. He gave up no touchdowns on the year and picked off three passes, in addition to recording 10 defensed passes, again the most of anyone in my top 10. His run defense needs to improve, but there is no reason to believe it won’t, seeing as he has posted better statistics (and looked better on film) in each year of his short career to date. As part of a powerful defense in Cincinnati, the sky really is the limit for Iloka.


5. Glover Quin

Quin had an exceptional year in 2014. As part of powerful Detroit defense alongside James Ihedigbo. He performed well as a decisive and confident open field tackler, recording 66 solo tackles and missing just eight, but it was in coverage where he excelled, recording a league high seven interceptions and 10 defensed passes, more than anyone else on this list. Incredibly talented, it will be fascinating to see how he and his partners in the secondary deal with the reduced power of the front line this season, with the loss of Suh and Fairley bound to have an impact.


4. Harrison Smith

In 2014, Smith allowed 26 catches and gave up two touchdowns from 40 targets, at first glance by no means the most impressive coverage numbers on this list. He did however snag five interceptions, record nine defensed passes and allow a QB rating against him of just 67.9, so overall I’d call that a very successful campaign. Incredibly solid against the run, with elite tackling ability, he was the only man to record three sacks and three interceptions in 2014, proving himself to be one of the most versatile defensive players in the league and certainly talented enough to be considered one of a handful of elite safeties heading into 2015/16.


3. Kam Chancellor

Chancellor is, like Earl Thomas (who is yet to feature – spoiler alert), a key component of a superb Seattle Seahawks defense. The two form the best safety duo in the league by far, complementing each other magnificently, working in tandem alongside the rest of the ‘Hawks linebacking corps and secondary, including the fantastic Bobby Wagner and inimitable Richard Sherman. Chancellor is the prototypical strong safety at 6-foot-3, 232 pounds, and one of the best tacklers and hardest hitters in the league. He led the NFL in run stop percentage (8.7 percent) last season, recording 33 stops in total according to Profootballfocus.com, the second most of anyone on this list. He also defensed six passes, the same amount as Thomas. Like their franchise as a whole, the duo of Chancellor and Thomas are bigger and better than the sum of their parts, and though there may be safeties with more outlandish statistics, Chancellor is a top three safety, and I would have no argument with anyone who had him even higher than I have placed him.


2. Eric Weddle

According to Profootballfocus.com, Eric Weddle was the best safety in the NFL in 2014. Statistically there is certainly a case to be made for the San Diego Charger to be considered top of the heap, with his 82 solo tackles to only four missed and an allowed quarterback rating of just 77.4 making for mightily impressive reading. His ability to restrict yards after the catch is a real strength, and he has shown to be proficient in coverage, recording eight defensed passes and one interception. Vastly experienced entering his ninth season in the NFL, Weddle is one of the most versatile safeties in the game, equally adept as a run-stuffer, open field tackler and ball-hawking coverage star. I have no doubt we will continue to see him perform at an exceptional level in 2015. He also has an excellent beard, and that’s worth celebrating.


1. Earl Thomas

Earl Thomas has been a crucial part of the most dominant defense in the NFL over the last few years, being justly recognised and rewarded with four pro bowl selections. By no means the biggest safety, he isn’t as adept as some against the running game, but more than makes up for this in coverage, where he allowed just 13 receptions from 23 targets and recorded 75 solo tackles in 2014. He only picked off one pass last season, but has 16 so far in his career and also forced three fumbles in 2014, proving his ability as a game-changer. He has never missed a game over the course of his five year career, meaning the continuity of the Seahawks defense built around him and the reliability he brings never waivers. What Thomas means to the Seattle Seahawks vaunted ‘Legion of Boom’ cannot be expressed or explained simply through statistics. He is a formidable leader, an intelligent, athletic and staunchly reliable foundation on which so much of the Seahawks success has been built. If any GM in the league was starting a team from scratch, Earl Thomas would be the safest and smartest pick at free safety.


*Passes defensed – Statistic from Sportingcharts.com – Credited when an incomplete pass is caused by a defensive player tipping or blocking the ball, or by a tackle simultaneous to the arrival of the football which results in breaking up the catch.


Agree? Disagree? Want to know the names of the guys who just missed out? As always feel free to comment, like, share and review at all the usual places, and find me on Twitter @Dylanbaker1986