Who was the greatest safety of all time?


Emlen Tunnell of the New York Giants poses for a photo at the Polo Grounds in New York on Oct. 14, 1952. (AP Photo)

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Talk of Fame Network

Safety is considered the last line of defense in the NFL. So a defensive coordinator better have someone he trusts at the back end of his defense.

So who was the most trustworthy player ever to provide that last line of defense? That’s the subject  our Talk of Fame Network poll this week — who was the NFL’s greatest safety of all time?  We offer eight options, seven Hall-of-Fame safeties and an eighth who is a Hall-of-Fame finalist for the Class of 2017. Here are your choices: 

Kenny Easley. A member of the 1980s’ NFL all-decade team. The 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year when he led the NFL with 10 interceptions. The fourth overall pick of the 1981 draft, Easley played only seven seasons before being forced to retire with a kidney disease. Another of his seasons was shortened by six games because of a knee injury. But what a seven-year career he enjoyed. Easley was a five-time Pro Bowler and a four-time first-team All-Pro. He intercepted 32 career passes and was named to the Seahawks 35th anniversary team. He also dabbled with punt returns for the Seahawks and averaged 11.6 yards on his 26 returns. Easley is the senior nominee for the Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017.

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(Easley photo courtesy of the Seattle Seahawks)

Ken Houston. A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Also a member of the 1970s’ NFL all-decade team. A ninth-round draft pick out of Prairie View, Houston signed with Houston as a college free agent and spent his first six seasons with the Oilers, going to the Pro Bowl five times, before a trade to Washington. He went to his final seven Pro Bowls in the NFC. His best season was 1971 with the Oilers when he returned four of his nine interceptions for touchdowns and also scored on a 71-yard fumble return. Houston intercepted 49 career passes and was a two-time first-team All-Pro. He also returned 51 career punts, scoring once on a 58-yard return with the Redskins.

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(Houston photo courtesy of the  Washington Redskins)

Paul Krause. The NFL’s all-time interception leader with 81. A second-round pick of the Redskins in 1964, he spent his first four seasons in Washington before his trade to the Minnesota Vikings where he spent his final 12 seasons. Despite his short stay in Washington, Krause led the NFL with 12 interceptions as a rookie in 1964 and  was named to the Redskins’ 70th anniversary team. He went to two Pro Bowls with the Redskins and six more with the Vikings. He also intercepted 10 passes in 1975 with the Vikings and returned them for a league-leading 201 yards. Krause went to eight Pro Bowls and played in four Super Bowls. He was a three-time first-team All-Pro. He also spent 12 seasons as a holder on placement kicks with the Vikings and threw a TD pass on a fake field goal in 1977.

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(Krause photo courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings)

Ronnie Lott. A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Also a member of the NFL all-decade teams for the 1980s and 1990s. The NFL’s eighth all-time leading interceptor with 63, although only 44 came at safety. The other 19 came at cornerback. Lott was a walk-in starter as a corner with the 49ers in 1981 and went to four Pro Bowls there. He moved to safety in 1986 and went to his final six Pro Bowls there. Lott won two Super Bowls at cornerback and two more at safety. He led the NFL in interceptions twice — 10 with the 49ers in 1986 and eight with the Raiders in 1991.

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(Lott photo courtesy of the San Francisco 49ers)

Ed Reed. A member of the 2000s’ NFL all-decade team. The 2004 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. One of only two players ever to lead the league in interceptions three times (along with Dallas CB Everson Walls). The NFL’s seventh all-time leading interceptor with 64. He also intercepted nine passes in post-season play. Reed helped turn the safety position into an offensive weapon. He scored 14 career touchdowns on interceptions (8), blocked punt returns (3), fumble returns (2) and a punt return (1). He also blocked four kicks.  Reed went to nine Pro Bowls and was a five-time first-team All-Pro.

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(Reed photos courtesy of the Baltimore Ravens)

Emlen Tunnell. A member of the NFL’s 50th anniversary team. Also a member of the 1950s’ NFL all-decade team. The NFL’s second all-time leading interceptor with 79. Undrafted out of college, Tunnell hitchhiked from Iowa to New York to ask Giants’ owner Tim Mara for a tryout in 1948. Fourteen years later, Tunnell retired with two championship rings and nine Pro Bowl appearances. A former college quarterback, Tunnell also returned kickoffs and punts. His best season as a defensive back was in 1949 when he intercepted 10 passes. His best season as a returner was 1951 when he returned three punts and one kickoff for touchdowns. Tunnell went to nine Pro Bowls and was a five-time first-team All-Pro.

Em Tunnell shown on 1964 in Iowa, was the spectacular safety man who gained more ground on defense than any offensive back or end. Emlen the Gremlin returned 38 punts 223 yards, 17 kickoffs 179 yards and six interceptions 117 yards, a total of 819 yards. He led the Giants is all three departments and broke his own league record of 34 when he brought back 38 punts. This latter figure is really a record of durability, because the slender Tunnell was smashed down in his tracks a dozen times but always came back for more. The amount of yardage he gained effectively answers fans who ask why he has the ball because of his tricky running and fantastic faking. He returned one kickoff 86 yards last season, never getting into top speed once. Em has made All-Pro and Pro Bowl teams the last several years. Tunnell was one of the big finds in football history ? the Giants signed him as a free agent. (AP Photo)

(Tunnell photo courtesy of the New York Giants)

Larry Wilson. A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Also a member of the NFL all-decade team for both the 1960s and 1970s. The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1966 when he led the league with 10 interceptions. Wilson scored seven career touchdowns on fumble and interceptions returns, including a 96-yarder with an interception and an 88-yarder with a fumble. He intercepted 52 career passes and recovered 14 career fumbles, amassing 973 return yards. But his greatest contribution to football was the innovation of the safety blitz in the early 1960s. Wilson was an eight-time pro Bowler and a five-time first-team All-Pro.

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(Wilson photo courtesy of the Arizona Cardinals)

Rod Woodson. A member of the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. Also a member of the 2000s’ NFL all-decade team. The league’s third all-time leading interceptor with 71, although only 24 came at safety. The other 47 came at cornerback. The NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1993. Like Lott, Woodson was a first-round draft pick but did not start until his second season. He spent his first 12 seasons as a corner and went to seven Pro Bowls. He moved to safety in 1999 and went to his final four Pro Bowls there. He led the NFL twice in interceptions at safety in 1999 and 2002 and won a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2000.

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(Woodson photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Steelers)

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7 Comments

  1. Bob
    December 7, 2016
    Reply

    Have to go with Wilson. Woodson a close second.

  2. Anonymous
    December 9, 2016
    Reply

    Wilson # 1.

  3. Rick
    December 9, 2016
    Reply

    Larry Wilson. Emlen Tunnell # 2.

  4. Anonymous
    December 10, 2016
    Reply

    I never saw Tunnell play, the rest I’ve witnessed their entire career. Thing is, I can remember at least one other good defensive player all of these played with except Larry Wilson. Look at the defensive line that each of your nominees played with. Some, like Krause, had it pretty good, eh?

  5. PDS
    December 10, 2016
    Reply

    Wilson. I never saw Tunnell play. I’ve seen the entire career of all the others. Look at the surrounding defense most of them enjoyed. Krause, especially. Woodson, Reed and Lott had top NFL defenses WITH them during most of their careers. In which case Easley would probably be my 2nd.

  6. TheJJWattExperience
    December 13, 2016
    Reply

    It’s so hard when you haven’t seen all of them play. I only caught the cusp of the end of the careers of Krause and Houston, so it’s not fair for me to judge them. Plus, I was still a kid.

    That would be like my judging Ed Reed on his final season of playing for the Jets and Texans. The Ed Reed reviews would not be good or fair if I judged him on his tenth season in Baltimore and eleventh and final NFL season.

    Of the four I’ve seen, I’d eliminate Woodson because he was a CB for the first 12 years of his career. This asks about “greatest safety.”

    Lott was a CB early in his career, but he spent over 9 years as a safety. However, were those 9 years better than Easley and his 7 years or Reed and his 11 years of playing safety? No. While Lott was productive until the very end, NFL teams don’t simply let truly great players leave in free agency very often and he played on three teams in his final five seasons (although he did lead the league in INTs with Oakland his first year after leaving San Francisco).

    Reed was a great. No doubt. He wasn’t a great hitter and there were quiet rumblings/reports about him freelancing more later in his career than coaches (Harbaugh) would like, which always didn’t put the team first (nor benefitted the team, though some did, too). Definitely great and a Hall of Fame slam dunk though. The best ever? Maybe. At least of the ones I’ve seen. His first 10 years were better than Easley’s first 10 years, but that’s only because Easley never had a year 8, 9, or 10 due to his kidney situation.

    Was Reed more dominant at FS than Easley at SS? It’s easier to put up better numbers on average at free safety. If we’re going with longevity, Reed would have to be the pick. If we’re going with who the greatest was for a bit shorter period (say, seven years), it would be hard to argue against Easley. Teams ran away from him, which affected his numbers. Likewise, Reed wouldn’t have his same numbers (although they’d still be great, like Easley’s still were) had he been forced to play SS his entire career. Easley got “stuck” at SS (played 4 years of FS at UCLA) because if this was a list of hardest hitting safeties ever – he’d be on that list, too. His overall game was that dominant.

    Although Easley only played seven years, he was dominant for the duration of his career. He and Reed are the only two on this list I’ve seen win a defensive player of the year award as a safety (Woodson was a CB when he won his).

    Basically, the best safety in the NFL since 1980 is Easley or Reed. Take your pick. There is no wrong answer. However, the best defensive back since 1980 is Lott. He’s just not the best safety on this list because he was a Pro Bowl CB for some of his prime years that do not count on this list of discussing the safety position.

  7. Tom K
    January 2, 2017
    Reply

    1. Lott
    2. Wilson
    3. Houston
    4. Tunnell
    5. Reed

    I excluded Woodson

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