Countdown to Canton: Ranking the top 10 safeties of all time


Photo courtesy of the N.Y. Giants

Once upon a time, the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s board of selectors was blind to safeties, with Ken Houston the last enshrinee to play.

And he retired after the 1980 season.

But all that changed in February with the election of former Seattle star Kenny Easley, who was forced to quit after the 1987 season. Easley will be inducted on Aug. 5, and his choice compelled our panel of Clark Judge, Rick Gosselin and Ron Borges — all of the Talk of Fame Network — along with John Turney of Pro Football Journal to compile a list of the 10 best safeties of all time.

Easley made it, but he’s not the top entry. In fact, nobody who played in the last 50 years was number one. So who is it? Keep on reading.

10. WILLIE WOOD

The Green Bay star was so good for so long that he was named all-NFL nine straight seasons, playing in six league championships during that period and winning won five. Like other safeties on this list, he returned punts, leading the league in interceptions and punt return yards in 1962. And, like some others here, he was durable — setting a league record for most consecutive starts by a safety (154). Wood made one of the most critical plays in Super Bowl I, intercepting Len Dawson early in the second half and returning it 50 yards to set up a Packers’ touchdown in the 35-10 victory. “Maybe the number-one play I wish I could have back,” Dawson said. In Super Bowl II he returned a punt 31 yards, a game record that stood 15 years … or until Darrell Green broke it in Super Bowl XVIII with a 34-yard return. Wood was named to the 1960s’ all-decade team and is a member of the Packers’ Hall of Fame.

9. YALE LARY

Yale Lary photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions

Like his teammate, Jack Christiansen, Lary was a multi-purpose player, a star who excelled as a safety, punter and return specialist. In his 11 years of play, he was named to nine Pro Bowls and five first-team All-Pro squads. More important, he was part of the Lions’ last championship runs, winning league titles in 1952, ’53 and ’57. Three times he led the league in punting, and, when he retired in 1964, his 44.2-yard average ranked second in NFL history — with Hall-of-Famer Paul Hornung later calling him the greatest punter in NFL history. But he was a ballhawk, too, with 50 career interceptions, putting him fifth all-time at his retirement, and part of one of the greatest secondaries ever — one that included Hall-of-Famers Dick LeBeau, Dick “Night Train” Lane, Christiansen and six-time Pro Bowler Jim David. A member of the 1950s’ all-decade team, Lary was inducted into the Texas A&M Athletic Hall of Fame, the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

8. PAUL KRAUSE

The NFL’s all-time leader in interceptions with 81 (from 45 different quarterbacks), Krause was a nine-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler. And he was a star from the very beginning. In his rookie season with Washington (1964), he led the league with 12 interceptions, was named to the Pro Bowl and was second only to teammate Charley Taylor for NFL Rookie of the Year. A former All-American baseball player at the University of Iowa, he was later called the “Centerfielder” for the Minnesota Vikings, a team that acquired him in a 1968 trade. He had 53 interceptions in his 12 years with the Vikes and finished his career with 19 fumble recoveries. “Krause did what he was Bud Grant asked in Minnesota’s defense,” said Gosselin, “and he did it better than anyone in NFL history.” So ability was one of Krause’s strengths. But so was availability. He missed only two games in his 16 NFL seasons. Krause is a member of the Vikings’ Ring of Honor and was named one of the 80 Greatest Washington Redskins.

7. KENNY EASLEY

Photo courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks

The first safety inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame since Paul Krause (1998), Easley had a brief … but decorated … career in the seven years he spent with Seattle before it was cut short by a kidney ailment. He was a five-time Pro Bowler and five-time All-Pro. He was the 1984 Defensive Player of the Year. And he was a member of the 1980s’ all-decade team. Yet, it took him nearly three decades to reach the Hall, and then only as a senior candidate. His best season was 1984 when, as the leader of Chuck Knox’s defense, he had a league-leading 10 interceptions, including two returned for touchdowns. Known as “The Enforcer” for his physical, aggressive play, Easley was named by Ronnie Lott as the best safety to play the game. “He was a force to be reckoned with,” said current Seattle safety Kam Chancellor. Easley completed his career with 32 interceptions for three touchdowns and 27 punt returns for 302 yards. He was elected to the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor and is a member of their 35th anniversary team.

6. JACK CHRISTIANSEN

A star safety and return specialist, he helped lead the Lions to three championships in the 1950s and was an all-NFL choice in six of his eight seasons. Christiansen could do it all. He led the league in interceptions in 1953 and 1957 and in punt returns for touchdowns in 1951, 1952, 1954 and 1956. His eight punt returns for scores were an NFL record until 1989 and still rank fourth on the all-time list, and his average of 21.5 yards per return in 1952 still remains the league high. But it’s not returns that have him on this list. It’s his play in the Lions’ secondary, where he had an NFL-best 12 interceptions in 1953 — tied for the fifth-highest in league history — despite playing only 11 games, and 10 in 1957, tying for the league high. But Christiansen was more than a great player; he was a great leader, with the Lions’ secondary … which featured a raft of Hall of Famers … nicknamed “Chris’s Crew,” in tribute to his role. Christiansen is a member of the NFL’s 1950′ all-decade team.

5. KEN HOUSTON

Photo courtesy of the Washington Redskins

As a free safety, Houston was so good that he was named all-league 12 consecutive years — the first two with the Houston Oilers and the last ten with Washington. His strength was finding the ball, and it didn’t matter where: In the air he had 49 interceptions; on the ground he recovered 21 fumbles. What’s more, he scored 12 times — including an NFL-record five in 1971 when he had four touchdown returns by interceptions and one via a fumble recovery. He was called “football’s most underrated superstar,” but his accolades belie that reputation. Houston not only is a member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team; he’s a member of the 1970s’ all-decade unit, a member of the Washington Redskins’ Ring of Fame and one of the 70 Greatest Redskins.

4. LARRY WILSON

Photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals

Wilson is one of a few NFL players who spent 10 or more seasons in the league without going to a playoff game. But don’t blame him. He was so accomplished that he was named to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team and called “the finest football player in the NFL.” by none other than Green Bay guard Jerry Kramer. Wilson could do just about everything, including blitz the quarterback. As part of a “Wildcat” package that featured a safety blitz, he accumulated over 20 unofficial quarterback sacks during his career. But he was just as adept at defending the pass as he was finding the passer, with 52 career interceptions — including one in seven consecutive games during 1966 when he led the league in that department with 10. And tough? Wilson was so resilient he once played with casts on both hands because of broken wrists … and still produced an interception. A member of the 1960s’ and ’70s’ all-decade team, Wilson was a Defensive Player of the Year (1966), six-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler. His number 8 has been retired by the Cardinals.

2. and 3. (tie) RONNIE LOTT

Photo courtesy of the S.F. 49ers

Lott was a cornerback, free safety and strong safety in his 14 NFL seasons, switching to safety after four seasons. He was a four-time Super Bowl champion, a 10-time Pro Bowler, an eight-time All-Pro and a member of the 75th anniversary team, as well as the 1980′ AND 1990s’ all-decade squads. He led the league twice in interceptions (both as a safety), ranks eighth all time in career picks and had his number 42 retired by the San Francisco 49ers. Lott made an immediate impact in the NFL, starting as a rookie and finishing with seven interceptions, including three returns for touchdowns –“ numbers that helped him finish second to Lawrence Taylor in Rookie of the Year voting. A ferocious hitter, he had outstanding range and was a team leader on and off the field. “He’s like a middle linebacker playing safety,” said Hall-of-Fame coach Tom Landry. “He may dominate the secondary better than anyone I’ve ever seen.”

ED REED

Photo courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens

One of the most complete safeties in NFL history, Reed holds a number of NFL interception records — including the two longest returns and the most career return yardage — and is the only player in league history to return an interception, blocked punt and fumble for touchdowns. He’s tied with three others with nine playoff interceptions, is one of only two players to lead the lead in pick three times and his 64 career interceptions rank seventh on the all-time list. “I love being around that ball,” Reed once said, “and I know where it’s going.” But Reed was more than just a ballhawk who twice led the league in interceptions. He had great range, was one of the game’s hardest hitters and was so smart and disruptive that Tom Brady would write, “Find No. 20 (Reed’s number) on every play” on his wristband when playing the Ravens. “Did it all,” said Turney. “Range, hitter, ball skills nd he could blitz.” In 2004, he was named the league’s Defensive Player of the Year, the first safety to win it in 20 years, and was a first-team choice to the 2000s’ all-decade squad.

  1. EMLEN TUNNELL

    Photo courtesy of the N.Y. Giants

The first African-American to be named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tunnell was a two-time NFL champ, a nine-time Pro Bowler, an eight-time All-Pro and a member of the 1950s’ all-decade team. He was also a ballhawk, ending his career after 14 seasons with an NFL-record (since broken) 79 career interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. “Tunnell had everything a great safety needs,” said Borges. “Intelligence, quickness, anticipation, speed and ball skills.” His play revolutionized the safety position, with Tunnell considered a scoring threat, either with touchdowns via interceptions or setting up scoring drives. Like Yale Lary and Jack Christiansen of the Lions, Tunnell was a return specialist, too, leading the league twice in punt returns. Just as important, he was durable — playing 143 consecutive games with the New York Giants. He finished his career with Green Bay, where he served as a team leader and extension of his head coach –with Vince Lombardi, a former Giants’ assistant, bringing him in to instill the Giants’ philosophy in the young Packers. Nevertheless, his impact on the Giants was never forgotten. In fact, years later, former Giants’ co-owner John Mara said, “It’s fair to say Emlen was the most beloved member of our organization, perhaps in its history.”

ALSO RECEIVING VOTES: Johnny Robinson, Brian Dawkins, Troy Polamalu.

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11 Comments

  1. Tom K
    July 17, 2017
    Reply

    Great article. Probably the one I most agree with so far. Gotta admit, thought you guys would of had Lott a pretty clear $1. However, it’s nice to see Tunnell get some respect. Wonder which guys had 1st place votes. I would of had the same top 5, just a slightly different order.

    Great work again guys.

    • July 17, 2017
      Reply

      Surprised Lott wasn’t number one, too. He was in my book, but others didn’t share same feeling. Never saw Tunnell, but know enough of him that I’m good with him at the top. Very close race. Thanks for checking in.

  2. bachslunch
    July 17, 2017
    Reply

    Agreed, fine list.

    • July 17, 2017
      Reply

      Another early riser. Thanks for staying in touch. Always good to hear from our regular customers. Feedback good to have. Thanks again.

  3. Joseph Wright
    July 17, 2017
    Reply

    So glad Cliff Harris failed to make this list. Paul Zimmerman and others have overrated him for years.

  4. Rasputin
    July 17, 2017
    Reply

    I’m so glad Jack Tatum didn’t get any votes. Amateurs have had him overrated for years. I probably wouldn’t have put Kenny Easley in the top 10 due to his short career (give me Cliff Harris, Darren Woodson, Steve Atwater, or John Lynch), but I’m glad to see guys like Larry Wilson, Paul Krause, and Emlen Tunnel get their due. It’s a solid, defensible list.

    • July 17, 2017
      Reply

      Yeah, thought so. Johnny Robinson was close. Had him on my list. But you’ll win a lot of games with this cast.

    • Joseph Wright
      July 18, 2017
      Reply

      Woodson, Atwater, and Lynch are fine. Harris–NO WAY.

      • Rasputin
        July 18, 2017
        Reply

        Cliff Harris – first team 1970s All Decade FS, 6 Pro Bowls, 3 first team AP All Pro selections, 4 NFC Conference Championship wins as a starter, 2 Super Bowl wins, 57 combined takeaways (playoffs and regular season).

        Harris was the starting FS on the Sports Illustrated All Time NFL team and Gil Brandt recently ranked him as the #6 safety of all time.

        HoF safety Larry Wilson (a member of this list) said, “I feel Harris is the finest free safety in the business today. He changed the way the position is being played. You see other teams modeling their free safeties around the way Harris plays the pass, and striking fear in everyone on the field because he hits so hard.”

        Cliff Harris would be a very defensible inclusion on this list.

  5. RC
    July 19, 2017
    Reply

    Why is there no mention of Eddie Meador who played for the Rams in the late 60’s? Do you not do your homework? This guy played in an age of run-heavy offenses and, yet, still has the Rams INT record! How do all you supposed sports pundits gloss over that? That is simply an incredible feat!

    • July 19, 2017
      Reply

      Didn’t gloss him over. He was considered. Just didn’t make the final cut. Eddie Meador was a terrific player, but so, too, were guys like Donnie Shell and Johnny Robinson and Cliff Harris. They didn’t make it, either.

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