By John Turney
|Credit: Jordan Spector|
John Lynch is also eligible but his credentials, while fine, are not in the class of Reed, Dawkins, and Polamalu. But he, too, should get in. However, there are quite a lot of fine safeties that have played since the late-1978 and while not all are HOFer, some are members of the Hall of Very Good and others likely will be in the near future.
Here is a chart (cling to enlarge) showing a basic comparison of the honors won by a select group of safeties.
Note on statistics: This data for tackles, assists, passes defensed is gathered from play-by-play data and much of it is original research. We do not use coaches statistics for tackles and assists because they vary from team to team. So, for consistency, we use the play-by-plays (often called gamebooks). Therefore, it sometimes will differ from various websites like NFLGSIS, Pro Football Reference (who we do use quite often), Fox Sports and ESPN.
The following is the career stats of the players in the chart.
Ed Reed is the best free safety of all time, though some would disagree. He had such range and instincts and made so many plays that the case is there for him being the G.O.A.T (greatest of all-time) but we will see in two years is the Hall of Fame selection committee agrees by making him one of the few safeties voted in on the first-ballot. At that point, the debates can begin.
John Lynch has been close to getting into the Hall of Fame having been on the Final 15 list a few times. However, since it is unlikely that more than one safety would be voted into the HOF in any given year it seems likely that Lynch will have to wait until Dawkins and Reed get in. Lynch did go to nine Pro Bowls, though the last two seem a bit dubious, perhaps based on reputation. Nonetheless, we'd expect that Lynch will get into the HOF in 2020 or soon thereafter.
Carnell Lake's career is hard to evaluate since he was so versatile and spent about two-and-a-half years as a cornerback and was a good one at that. He was generally an in-the-box-safety, making plays around the line of scrimmage. He was a First- or Second-team All-Pro five times and got post-season honors in seven seasons and was voted the the1990s All-Decade team as one of the Second-team safeties. He was certainly a fun player to watch since he was around the action so much.
LeRoy Butler could to a lot from his strong safety position. Also like Lake, Butler played some cornerback and again, like Lake he made a lot of plays around and behind the line of scrimmage. In addition, though, Butler picked off passes (38). Not quite the number of Donnie Shell the record holder for strong safeties, but still, a goodly number.
Ronnie Lott but he didn't belong on the 1990s All-Decade Team, even if it was a Second-team selection. A better choice would have been Darren Woodson. Lott only played have he decade and his years with the Jets were average, at best. Woodson was right there with Butler and Lake as a playmaking strong safety and was part of the Cowboys championship runs. He was also a noted special teams player.
Steve Atwater gets a lot of HOF notice and for good reason. He is aided by having a signature play which is his hit on Christian Okoye of the Kansas City Chiefs on Monday Night Football September 17, 1990. However, our personal favorite was his point blank interception, of Jay Schroeder in 1989. Shroeder fired a pass and Atwater instantly put both hands up an stabbed the ball at what looked to be a distance of five or so yards. To us, that is his second "signature play".
Darren Sharper is persona non grata for being sentenced to almost two decades in prison in a case in which he was accused of drugging and raping multiple women in multiple states. Although Hall of Fame by-laws prevent holding off-the-field actions against a candidate. That may be true, but Sharper won't ever get enough votes to be on the Semi-finalist list. There are just to many other good candidates to waste time with this guy.
Troy Polamalu was an exciting player, the epitome of an in-the-box safety who was the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and his 2008 season was just as good. He should have no trouble being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Rodney Harrison is an interesting case. When you look at his numbers you ask why he wasn't All-Pro more. In 2000 he had 127 tackles, eight for a loss, six sacks and six interceptions (one going for a score) and defended 17 passes. It's hard for a strong safety to get more big plays in a season than that. And as a result, he wasn' as much as All-AFC or a Pro Bowler, much less a First- or Second-team All-Pro. Perhaps he had a reputation amongst voters for being a cheap shot artist. True or not true, Harrison was a fine strong safety was solid in all aspect of the game.
Eugene Robinson. He didn't get many post-season honors but according to one scouting firm, Pro Scout Inc., thought he was the best free safety in the NFL in the 1990s.
Tim McDonald was All-Pro twice, though neither consensus, and got post-season honors eight times. He was not the classic in-the-box strong safety, playing deep as often as he moved down and was productive at both spots—totalling 49 stuffs and 40 interceptions.
Lawyer Milloy was replaced by the Patriots by Rodney Harrison after quite a few very good seasons. With the Pats Milloy got post-season honors four times and helped them win their first Super Bowl, playing a part in slowing down the Rams Greatest Show on Turf.
Hanks had a short career and like Carnell Lake and LeRoy Butler played some cornerback. His peak was from 1994-97 when he picked off 22 passes in those four years and went to four Pro Bowls.
Nolan Cromwell was on his way to the Hall of Fame until a knee injury in 1984 felled him. He came back in 1985 but was never the same playmaker that he had been from 1979-84. In those early years there likely has not been a free safety with more range, leaping ability, instincts and ball skills. He was a good hitter and even better tackler. Under Bud Carson's Cover-2 he was able to cover half the field with relative ease and in the sub packages could play cornerback and run the routes better than the wide receivers he was covering. In 1983 he moved to strong safety and was Second-team All-Pro and made his fourth Pro Bowl. But, as Howard Cosell used to say "th-e kn-ee, al-ways th-e kn-ee".
Browner is yet another safety that began his career as a corner and special teams maven who moved to safety. Browner liked to tackle players by grabbing them with his extraordinary strong hands and throwing them to the turf in violent fashion.
Deron Cherry may have been the best ball-hawking safety of the 1980s, even including Ronnie Lott. From 1983-86 he snagged 30 passes. Our favorite year of his may have been 1988 when he picked off seven passes and covered six fumbles for a total of 13 turnovers.
Not much need be said about Ronnie Lott. A first-ballot Hall of Famer, an eight-time All-Pro (six consensus) and 10 Pro Bowls. he began as a corner from 1981-84, even though he was the corner in the base defense and would move to free safety in nickel and dime defenses. Later in his career he moved to strong safety with the Raiders and have a superlative season for them in 1991.
Easley was just inducted into the Hall of Fame. Even though he had a short career he was a dominant player. He was a hard hitter and had good range, in fact, he'd have likely been a HOF free safety had he been asked to play away from the tight end.