Simon’s Top 10 Safeties Heading Into the 2015 NFL Season

Last week we looked at our Top 10 Cornerbacks, this week it is time to move inside to Safety, possibly the most demanding position on the field.

With defensive coordinators using ever more complex schemes to shut down opposing offenses, it is often the safeties that are relied upon to load up the line or patrol the middle of the field and use their athletic ability to make the play.

Here’s my take on the Top 10 heading in to 2015. As always, feel free to let me know which selections you agree with, and whom you think is in the wrong spot. You can find me on Twitter @headedforhades.

Away we go…

  1. Jairus Byrd

If this list were based purely on how players had performed in 2014, Jairus Byrd likely wouldn’t feature in the Top 100, let alone Top 10, having missed almost all of the season to a knee injury suffered in Week 4. However, I think he’s too good a Safety to be excluded entirely here.

Over his six-year career, Jairus has amassed 378 tackles, 22 interceptions, forced 12 fumbles and recorded 3 sacks. He’s also been selected to the Pro Bowl 3 times.

There is no doubt there will be questions over whether his comeback from the meniscus tear that ended the 2014 campaign so abruptly will take the edge off his performances for the season ahead, but I’m willing to take a chance and have him squeak my Top 10.

  1. George Iloka

Iloka had another strong year in 2014, his third in the NFL and second as starter, and is already proving to be something of a steal for the Bengals given his lowly 2012 Draft position of 167 overall.

He recorded 74 tackles and two interceptions on the year bringing his total to 140 and four respectively for past two seasons. Add in two forced fumbles in that time and it is easy to see why Iloka is fast becoming considered a dominant force in the Bengals secondary.

His relative inexperience and questions over an injury this summer that has seen him miss the entire off-season program to date stop me from putting him higher in my rankings, but another season on the same trajectory and he could well feature much higher next year.

  1. Antoine Bethea

In a season of turmoil for the 49ers, they will at least be able to enjoy some consistency in the middle of the secondary in 2015. Having been on the field for all but 7 defensive snaps in 2014, Bethea offers at least some comfort for new defensive coordinator Eric Mangini.

At 30, Bethea is in his prime and it shows in his play, particularly on the ground where he uses his knowledge and awareness to close down opposing runners who may otherwise have the edge in a flat out footrace. That combined with his solid tackling ability saw him make an impressive 99 tackles on the season.

He’ll be a vital player in a 49ers secondary that will likely need some veteran experience to help it improve over the course of the year and to develop the promising Jaquiski Tartt but, as one of the best at Safety in the NFL currently, I think Bethea will be more than up to the task.

  1. Tashaun Gipson

As with my Top 10 Cornerbacks list with Joe Haden, the Cleveland Browns secondary gets a mention, this time courtesy of Tashaun Gipson.

Another player whose 2014 season was curtailed through injury (knee), Gipson still managed a breakout year in his third season in Cleveland, holding opposing Quarterbacks who targeted him to a lowly 41.9 rating. That’s largely thanks to his 6 interceptions on the year, which was the second best of any Safety in the League despite just 20 balls being thrown his way.

On a team that struggled in many areas last year, their only top 10 placing was for pass defense and that’s thanks in no small part to Gipson. Whilst he struggles a little with run stopping duties, his speed and anticipation across the middle of the field make him dangerous in coverage and someone who has proven he can present the ball to the Browns offense on a regular basis.

If only they knew what to do with it when they got it…

  1. Devin McCourty

Devin hit the Free Agency market at the end of 2014, and I think the amount of interest shown was a reflection of his value as a Safety. As it transpired he re-signed with the Patriots on a five-year, $47.5M deal, making him the second highest paid Safety in the NFL currently.

Having switched to Safety full time last year McCourty brought his cornerback skills to the Safety position finishing the year with 68 tackles, 2 interceptions and a forced fumble, and ultimately helped the Patriots to another Super Bowl title.

I’m not sure the Patriots will enjoy the same levels of success in 2015 but, with a year of playing exclusively at Safety under his belt, I only see McCourty getting better as he continues to marshal the middle of the field.

That said, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him return to Corner in a secondary short on depth at the position, but if he remains at Safety, I think he’s set to be amongst the best in the League yet again.

  1. Glover Quin

Until this off-season, the biggest name on the Lions’ defense was undoubtedly Ndamukong Suh (sorry Duncan!), but following his departure to Miami I think that mantle gets handed to Glover Quin for 2015, and rightly so in my opinion.

In a season that saw him record 66 solo tackles and allow just 61 yards after the catch, Quin continued to demonstrate why he’s one of the best in the NFL in his second year with the Lions. His anticipation and speed allow him to close down receivers quickly and he’s not afraid to follow the ball even if it is outside of his coverage area. As a result, he picked off opposing Quarterbacks 7 times over the course of the season – more than anyone in the League.

If there is a downside, I think he is susceptible to missing tackles in traffic and is sometimes a little over aggressive with his breaks on the ball, but for a genuine ball hawk these are a small price to pay for me.

All eyes will be on whether he can reproduce the same sort of form again in 2015, but I think he’ll be as busy as ever on a defense that may not get quite as much pressure up front.

  1. Kam Chancellor

Spoiler alert – Chancellor is the first of two Seahawks to feature on this list, and in my opinion makes up one half of probably the best Safety pairing in the NFL today.

At 6’3” and 234lbs, he’s bigger than some linemen and, as Eddie Lacy will tell you, he hits harder than some too! His run stopping ability is second to none at the position using his immense strength and size to fend off opposing blockers to get to his man. As a result he recorded 75 tackles on the year, although the 14 missed tackles stopped that number from being even more impressive.

Whilst as a pairing the Seahawks safeties would be my number one as mentioned earlier, Chancellor in isolation lacks a little for me in terms of coverage ability and speed when matched up against quicker receivers. Along with reservations over how that knee will hold up again this year and those missed tackles that are on the high side, they are all enough to stop him leapfrogging any of my top 3 just yet.

  1. Harrison Smith

Having missed a large proportion of the 2013 season with a foot injury, 2014 was something of a comeback season for Harrison Smith in only his third year in the League.

On a defense that was largely inconsistent, Smith was a reliable figure in the secondary and admits to having enjoyed the variation and freedom of coach Mike Zimmer’s defensive schemes. It showed in his numbers, too.

At the end of the year Smith had not only secured 5 interceptions, taking one 81 yards for a touchdown, he’d also sacked opposing Quarterbacks 3 times, and hit or hurried them a further 9. In short, Harrison was equally at home up at the line covering the run, or sat in zone coverage waiting to pounce.

His 332 yards conceded (almost half after the catch) and 11 missed tackles are negatives that Smith will need to improve on, but as a relatively young safety still learning his craft and Zimmer’s defensive scheme, he has room to improve. From what we’ve seen so far, I don’t think that is something that will be a problem for Smith who I think has the potential to be very good indeed.

  1. Earl Thomas

The “Legion of Boom” will undoubtedly go down as one of the best secondary units ever to have played the game and, in my opinion at least, Earl Thomas is the fulcrum around which the unit operates.

Being just 5’10”, Thomas could be considered a little small to be an effective safety but his exceptional athleticism and footballing instinct more than make up for anything he may lack in terms of size.

His range of coverage is immense and he gave up just 141 yards last season as a result. Whilst he enjoys the similar luxury of his teammate Richard Sherman of opposing Quarterbacks rarely targeting him, for Thomas I think that is more a reflection of his ability than his reputation. In his 5 years in the League, Thomas has made four trips to the Pro Bowl and has been selected to the All-Pro as a first teamer 3 times.

Whilst he stands as leader on one of the best secondary units ever, he doesn’t make my number 1 spot. Despite the strength of the “Legion”, Thomas gave up 2 touchdowns in his coverage, and had 11 missed tackles on the year. He’ll also be starting 2015 off the back of major shoulder surgery having undergone procedures to repair a torn labrum in the off-season, which I think may limit him at least for the early part of the season.

My selection of the aforementioned Sherman at Number 1 on the cornerbacks list proved divisive, and Thomas at 2 here may prove to be equally so.

  1. Eric Weddle

If this list were being compiled using the somewhat established Gridiron Gents metric of facial hair, Eric Weddle would be a contender for the Number 1 spot. It’s that impressive, when the Chargers are in zone coverage, the beard gets its own area to patrol. As it is, I still have him top of the pile.

Weddle has been an ever present in the San Diego secondary for the last 6 years having not missed a game since 2009. In that time he’s proven to be one of the most effective and consistent cover safeties in the League, and helped the Chargers rank 4th on pass defense in 2014.

Weddle himself recorded 114 tackles on the year, missing just 4 in the process, and didn’t allow a touchdown in his coverage all season. He also forced 2 fumbles and made one interception in an all-round performance that was a demonstration of how the position should be played.

The issue of a new contract will hang over Weddle and the Chargers headed in to the season, but I don’t think that will stop him from producing yet another standout display, especially given the likelihood of the 30 year old hitting Free Agency come January.

If he does, I don’t think there will be any shortage of suitors for the veteran who would benefit almost any franchise.