Expectations for safeties have evolved as offensive trends philosophies have evolved. The earliest pure safeties lived up to their names, acting as safety nets deep behind the rest of their defense, combating the long ball tendencies of the day. As offenses became more sophisticated, roles on defense became more complex. Safeties now had to be able to cover most all areas of the field, as well as run and pass blitz, as well as their requisite support against the rush. The position has seen several talented – and vastly different – players over the years. From the rangy Nolan Cromwell to the thumping Steve Atwater, from the understated brilliance Eric Weddle to the flashy phenom Adrian Wilson, the position offers something for everyone. Because of that, people with different opinions on what safeties should look like will have widely different ideas of who were the best or who most deserve Hall of Fame recognition. Surprisingly, the voting committee, for better or worse, had seemingly homogeneous views regarding enshrinement. The final list included twelve safeties, listed below.1
Hall of Fame Safeties
Emlen Tunnell (1948-1961)
New York Giants, Green Bay Packers
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 3 Title Losses; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 4 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award
Tunnell was the league’s first great pure safetyman, whose stellar play inspired generations of rangy defenders. He was a key cog in Steve Owens‘s feared Umbrella Defense and patrolled deep to disrupt the long distance passing attacks of the era. Tunnell possessed incredible range, which he used to intercept an astounding 79 passes in his career.2 In addition to his work in coverage, he was also a fierce tackler, capable of jarring ball-carriers. His innate ability to know just where to be on both passing and rushing plays exalted the New York defense and stymied the opposition. Tunnell was also among the best kick and punt returners in the league. His 1951 season was a masterpiece: in 12 games, he intercepted nine passes and scored touchdowns on three punt returns and one kick return.
Jack Christiansen (1951-1958)
6 First Team All Pros; 5 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards; 1 GridFe Gray and White Award
The leader of Chris’s Crew, Christiansen was a heady player with tremendous speed in coverage. In his short career, he led the league in interceptions twice and was a dominant ballhawk at his peak. Between 1953 and 1957, he picked off 41 throws in 56 games while setting the tone for Detroit’s dominant secondary. Christiansen was also a premier punt returner, leading the NFL in return touchdowns four times and finishing his career with eight – one for each season of his brief tenure. His prowess as a punt returner forced opponents to rethink the way they approached punt coverage, prompting them to significantly widen their cover units to account for his speed.
Yale Lary (1952-1964)
5 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 3 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 1 GridFe World Award; 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award
d Lary was a versatile player whose ability to excel on both defense and special teams provided great value to the dynasty Lions. As a safety, he hauled in 50 career interceptions. With fellow stud defensive back Jack Christiansen patrolling behind the cerebral Joe Schmidt, Lary formed the nucleus of one of the greatest defensive dynasties in the sport. As a punter, he led the NFL in punting average in three separate seasons. He was an all star early in his career, but he missed what would have been his fourth and fifth seasons (1954-55) to military service. Despite missing time, he came back and continued to play at a high level until his 1964 retirement.
Willie Wood (1960-1971)
Green Bay Packers
7 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 5 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Green Bay legend Willie Wood was the model of consistent excellence, earning selections to an all-NFL team every season from 1962 to 1970. His respect among peers was universal. On a defense full of legends, Wood was the most revered – even the feared Ray Nitschke admitted he didn’t want to disappoint Wood on the field. He led the league in interceptions in 1962 but didn’t otherwise pick off many passes; his career total of 48 is rather low for a safety of his caliber. However, Wood made his mark by dissuading passes in his coverage rather than baiting passers into making mistakes. Despite his lack of picks, his defining career moment occurred on an interception of the normally careful Len Dawson in Super Bowl I. A Packers blitz saw Dawson hurry his throw, and instead of a completion to Fred Arbanas into Green bay terrotiry, the result was Wood snatching the ball and returning it to the Kansas City five. His return set up the Elijah Pitts score that opened the floodgates and drowned the Chiefs.
Larry Wilson (1960-1972)
St. Louis Cardinals
6 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Cardinals virtuoso Larry Wilson probably had the most defensive versatility of any safety in history. He was excellent in coverage, finishing his storied career with 52 interceptions despite not being a traditional deep coverage specialist. His ability to stop ball-carriers in their tracks is the stuff of legend, and he is rightly regarded as a pioneer of the safety blitz (he didn’t invent it, but he did perfect it). Despite being in coverage more often than not, Wilson finished his career with an unofficial count of 22-25 sacks, which was unheard of for contemporary safeties.3 His 1966 campaign is among the finest a safety has ever produced: he intercepted a pass in seven consecutive games and finished with ten overall. Journalists at the time were so impressed they voted him as the runner up for the Associated Press’s MVP award.
Paul Krause (1964-1979)
Minnesota Vikings, Washington
4 First Team All Pros; 3 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Losses; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Year in, year out, Krause manned the last line of defense for his teams with aplomb. He never had a down year, when healthy, and his eight seasons with at least six interceptions are a testament to his steady excellence. After all was said and done, Krause had intercepted a stunning 81 passes – a record that has stood since 1979. With regulatory changes making it easier than ever to pass without suffering turnovers, Krause’s record may never fall. Though he never won a title, he played well in four Super Bowl losses, and his interception of Len Dawson in Super Bowl IV was one of the few bright spots in a Minnesota loss.
Ken Houston (1967-1980)
Washington, Houston Oilers
7 First Team All Pros (1 AFL/6 NFL); 5 Second Team All Pros (1 AFL/4 NFL); 12 Pro Bowls (2 AFL/10 NFL); 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award
With twelve Pro Bowl selections, Ken Houston earned a trip to the NFL’s all star game more than any other player in the history of the position. He had solid speed and a long, tall frame that enabled him to make plays on the ball that many safeties could not. Once he got his hands on a pass (which he did 49 times), his elusiveness made him a serious threat to score. Houston returned nine of his interceptions for touchdowns, and he added three more touchdowns off of returns from a punt, a fumble recovery, and a blocked field goal. An integral fixture on his defenses, Houston was named team MVP four times – once with the Oilers and thrice with Washington.
Ronnie Lott (1981-1994)
San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Raiders, New York Jets
8 First Team All Pros; 10 Pro Bowls; 4 Title Wins; 1 GridFe Prime Time Award; 1 GridFe Tunnell Vision Award
Lott is generally regarded as the greatest safety ever to play. History has remembered him for his ability to lay devastating hits on unfortunate offensive players, but it should be noted that Lott made four Pro Bowls and two all pro teams as a cornerback before moving to safety. A testament to his coverage skills, Lott intercepted 63 passes in the regular season and a record 9 passes in the playoffs. He wasn’t the biggest or the fastest, but he had incredible instincts that allowed him to maintain man coverage as a corner or deep zone coverage as a free safety. Despite his lack of size, he was one of the most feared hitters in history, and he had the ability to demoralize ball-carriers in run support. He used his terrific leverage and quick twitch ability to uncoil like a mamba striking at its prey, and this ability came in handy as Lott superbly defended near the line of scrimmage in nickel packages. His arrival in San Francisco changed the outlook of the team, as he led arguably the most underrated defensive dynasty in history on his way to four Super Bowl titles.4
Kenny Easley (1981-1987)
4 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 5 Pro Bowls; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 3 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Easley is among the great athletes ever to play the safety position. Tall and sinewy, he possessed the speed to run with receivers and the length to play the ball, and he had the raw power to stop running backs the way a car windshield stops a bug on the interstate. One doesn’t earn the nickname The Enforcer by merely taking opponents to the ground with form tackles. It seems uncommon for a hard-hitting run support safety to double as a ball hawk, but Easley had a knack for forcing turnovers. In his five seasons before injury, he had 26 interceptions and ten fumble recoveries. That includes a league-leading ten picks in his 1984 defensive player of the year campaign. Easley’s incandescent career was cut short by injury, but he was arguably the best safety in the league at his peak.
Brian Dawkins (1996-2011)
Philadelphia Eagles, Denver Broncos
5 First Team All Pros; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Loss; 3 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Among recent safeties, it seems everyone must be compared to Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. Like Polamalu, Dawkins created mayhem near the line of scrimmage– he ranks 3rd among defensive backs in sacks since 1982 and 2nd in forced fumbles since 1993, as far back as each statistic officially goes– though he wasn’t the instinctual freelancer. Like Reed, Dawkins was also excellent as a deep coverage safety, though he lacked the preternatural range. He had the strengths of both players without the one special attribute that landed them on so many highlight reels, but don’t let that fool you into thinking he wasn’t their equal. He anchored one of the most underrated defenses in recent memory– an Eagles team that won 59 games from 2000 to 2004, making four conference championship games with an average rank in points allowed of 3.4– and then hung around long enough to be named All Pro in Denver at age 36 on the strength of his play rather than his reputation.
Ed Reed (2002-2013)
Baltimore Ravens, New York Jets, Houston Texans
7 First Team All Pros; 1 Second Team All Pro; 9 Pro Bowls; 1 Title Win; 1 GridFe Godzilla Award; 2 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
Ed Reed is undoubtedly the greatest pure free safety in history, with unmatched range and uncanny instincts. His incredible closing speed allowed him to bait quarterbacks into throwing his way, only to see the savvy defender snatch the ball away a the last moment. His nose for the ball saw him lead the league in picks three times and record a total of 64 interceptions in the most passer-friendly era in NFL history.5 The consummate playmaker, Reed became offense on defense with the ball in his hands, returning seven interceptions and two fumbles for touchdowns. He also scored four times via punt return and blocked punt return. The daring Reed wasn’t content to settle for a touchback; he set an NFL record with a 106 yard interception return in 2004 and then broke his own record with a 107 yard return in 2008.6 Feared and respected, Reed’s reputation was such that opposing quarterbacks made sure to note the whereabouts of number 20 before every snap.
Troy Polamalu (2003-2014)
4 First Team All Pros; 2 Second Team All Pros; 8 Pro Bowls; 2 Title Wins; 1 Title Loss; 4 GridFe Tunnell Vision Awards
During his brilliant career, Troy Polamalu dazzled fans and players alike with his berserk style and otherworldly athleticism. He was a playmaker who could anticipate snap counts to make leaping stops behind the line of scrimmage, knife through traffic to neutralize a running back, destroy short passing patterns, or play the ball deep. Polamalu played with reckless abandon, freelances, and took the kind of chances coaches only allow the best players to take. Occasionally, his risks would backfire, but often they resulted in the sort of game-changing plays that earned him defensive player of the year selections in 2005 and 2010.
- Others receiving votes: Darren Woodson ↩
- He first broke the career interceptions in 1952, and he pushed it so far that his place atop the career leaderboard lasted for 27 years. ↩
- Estimated by John Turney, sack historian extraordinaire and legend in the esoteric NFL research community. ↩
- During Lott’s time in San Francisco, the team fielded a top ten scoring defense in nine out of ten seasons. The lone blip was the fluky 1982 strike season that saw all parts of the 49ers take several steps back. ↩
- Reed is also tied for the career postseason interceptions record, intercepting 9 balls in just 15 games. ↩
- Fittingly, his courage was rewarded by being named the defensive player of the year by a major publication in both seasons. ↩