Thursday, May 2, 2019

The NFL's Best-ever Safeties

OPINION
By John Turney
The is the latest in our ongoing series of listing the top players at each position, the final installment of the defensive spots.

Again, the top of the list are the 'elite' based on research, interviews, film study and also their post-season honors—All-Pro, Pro Bowls, etc. Of course honors, especially Pro Bowls that are post-1994 or so can be problematic.

That is when fan voting was included in the equation and teams with strong fan bases (Dallas, Denver, Washington) seemed to get a lot of Pro Bowlers that may have been questionable. Denver, especially, seemed to get Pro Bowl safeties that were late in their career and who didn't seem like that had Pro Bowl years, so we took that into account a little bit.
The play of safety has evolved, schemes are more complex now, but we are attempting to rank based on the conditions when someone played and the era and how much the ball is being thrown and all those things factor into our views. We tend to favor peak performance over longevity but a player having both is ideal.

We chose to go to nearly 100 on this list but have a list of some notable safeties that got at least some post-season honors or have some notable statistics that we didn't profile.

Enjoy—

1. Ed Reed—The G.O.A.T., he did it all. He could cover, hit, play free in man coverage or cover-2 and dominate half the field. He was smart, active, and had great ball skills. And was a fine kick blocker as well. He began as a strong safety and in his fourth year, he moved to free safety, although in the last couple of decades those distinctions mean less than they did in the 1960s-90s.

He won about every honor you can win. He was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2004, All-Decade, a six-time consensus First-team All-Pro, and a nine-time Pro Bowler. He was elected to the Hall of Fame this year, as a first-time eligible nominee.

He picked off 64 passes and set NFL record for interception return yards (1,590) and scored nine defensive touchdowns and won a ring with the Ravens. He led the NFL in picks three times as well.


2. Ronnie Lott—Lott began his career as a left corner and he hit like a truck at that spot but some scouts said he might "be better at safety" and they were right. Even in his early years, he played safety in nickel and then did move to safety permanently in 1985. Like Reed, he did it all, but in all accuracy did not have the range Reed had.

Lott was an All-Decade selection for the 1980s and 1990s (though in fairness the 1990s selection is dubious). He owns four Super Bowl rings and was a consensus First-team All-Pro eight times (six times consensus) and one additional Second-team All-Pro honor and was a 10-time Pro Bowler.  He was also a pick on the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team and a good bet to be on the NFL 100th Anniversary Team as well. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility on top of all of that.

All told he stole 63 passes and returned five for touchdowns and twice led or tied for the NFL in interceptions (1986 and 1991). He totaled 1146 career tackles (32.5 were behind the line of scrimmage) and 170 passes defended, 8.5 sacks and 16 forced fumbles.

Lott was a huge hitter and extremely smart and well-studied. That preparation made him effective late in his career when his speed began to betray him a little bit and when he moved to strong safety due to that.

3. Jack Christiansen—The Ed Reed of the 1950s. He had great speed and had great range. He began his career as a cornerback and he moved to safety. He played in a scheme that had several coverages among them something called "port" and star". Essentially those duties were more akin to free safety than "left safety/strong safety".

George Allen even stated that Christiansen "essentially invented the free safety position" and that Christiansen was the "fastest man he ever saw in a football uniform" and "the best safety I ever saw".

Allen added, "He was very alert, he looked for clues. He figured out receivers' moves and was always a step ahead but wasn't a gambler. He admitted he didn't like to take on the big backs like Marion Motley but he would get it done."

Christiansen is a Hall of Famer and was a 1950s All-Decade pick, a six-time All-Pro and is the owner of a trio championship rings. According to author T. J. Troup Christiansen is on the short list of the safeties with the "absolute best range ever".

He twice led the NFL in interceptions and was an elite punt returner—one of the top few ever. He returned kicks, too, but didn't have the production on them like he did fielding punts. Totaled, he scored 11 non-offensive touchdowns which are still tied for 14th all-time even though he played just eight seasons.

4. Emlen Tunnell—A hitter, a left safety and one of the top 2-3 defensive players of the 1950s. Tunnell played 14 seasons, is a member of the Hall of Fame, was a six-time All-Pro and named to nine Pro Bowls. He won two rings, though the title he won as a backup with the Packers in 1961 was kind of a "gravy-train" type.

George Allen said, "Tunnell was big for a safety but he was quick and agile. He was an intelligent player who anticipated plays and was always in a position to defend the pass. He wouldn't gamble unnecessarily but had one of the highest interception totals. He had good technique on his tackles and took pride in his ability to tackle."

Herb Adderley added, "He's the hardest-hitting safety who ever played.  He had recognition of what was happening to get him at the right place at the right time without having to rely on speed and quickness. I think he was the greatest safety ever."

A top-notch punt returner as well and an excellent kick returner, too.

5. Brian Dawkins—A complete safety, good tackler, great range. Perhaps only question mark is lack of year-to-year consistency in picking off passes, though he mitigated that some by forcing an inordinate number of fumbles.

Other than that he was all you could ask as a free safety. In his 14th season, he went to the Broncos where he played more of a strong safety role accord to his coach Wink Martindale, although he'd still have some 'free safety' roles at times.

Dawkins played sixteen seasons and was All-Pro five times and a Second-team All-Pro once and voted to nine Pro Bowls. He was All-Decade in the 2000s and voted to the Hall of Fame in 2008. He ended with 37 picks and 26 sacks and 36 forced fumbles to go with 1,131 tackles and 47.5 run/pass stuffs.

6. Larry Wilson—He did not invent the safety blitz, but his success at it did popularize it. He was a very good tackler and a tough player. He did lack speed and was not a safety would not have excelled at Cover-2 for example, he just didn't have the range to do it, but as a middle-of-the-field safety, he was excellent. He once played with casts on both hands and still picked off a pass.

Goerge Allen opined, "Boy was he tough, he had good hands and was always picking off passes. He loved to tackle and hit a ton. He was the kind of player who would dump the quarterback for a loss on one play and then be 40 yards downfield to intercept a pass on the next play. He didn't have a lot of speed but he had a lot of heart and hustled on every play."

Wilson was a six-time All-Pro and eight-time Pro Bowler and was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1966. He was All-Decade for the 1960s and also voted to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team

He picked off 52 passes had at least 20½ sacks and seven defensive scores. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

7. Willie Wood—A seven-time All-Pro (four consensus) and a nine-time Pro Bowl/All-NFC level player he received post-season honors of one kind or another for ten straight seasons. He was All-Decade for the 1960s and is a Hall of Famer.

For the first five years of his career, he was a dynamite punt returner and was also a kickoff specialist at times, too. He led the NFL in picks in 1962 and wears five NFL Championship Rings.

He was a big-time hitter and tackler and had good (not great) speed, desire and tenacity and great ability to leap. He learned his trade from Emlen Tunnell who was with the Packers when Wood entered the NFL. Time has sort of forgotten Wood, which is too bad. You don't see younger fans know how great he was. But his opponents do.

Raymond Berry said, "Willie gave the Packers the ability to call one defense and get many interpretations of it. He smells a play, and takes off on his own, to break up a play he should have never even been near."

8. Johnny Robinson—The AFL's version of Larry Wilson. He began his career as a running back and moved to safety. He had good ball skills and tackled well. He was called "intuitive" and had a "knack for the game".

He was All-Decade for the 1960s and was a six-time All-AFL/All-Pro pick and went to seven AFL-All-Star games/Pro Bowls and was a key part of three AFL titles and one Super Bowl. Played with broken ribs in the Super Bowl win versus the Vikings. He finally was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2019.

“Simply put, Johnny Robinson is one of the greatest safeties that I ever faced", said Lance Alworth.

9. Troy Polamalu—All over the field, almost a rover-type player at times. Good tackler, could be fooled once in a while, too.

Polamalu was an eight-time Pro Bowler and a four-time All-Pro and a Second-team twice and was a Second-team pick on the 2000s All-Decade Team. He owns two Super Bowl rings and scored five defensive touchdowns. He is a good bet to be elected to the Hall of Fame soon after he becomes eligible.

Polamalu totaled 778 tackles (just over 60 were behind the line of scrimmage, including sacks) and he picked off 32 passes and forced fourteen fumbles.

10. Ken Houston—Very solid, not the fastest player but as a strong safety that didn't matter as much. One flaw was he did miss some tackles on occasion (25 in 1973 alone) but he'd also make big tackles in key games (ask the Cowboys).

George Allen, who coached Houston said, "As a safety, Kenny roamed far and wide to make plays. He was a positive influence on our team, he never missed a game and didn't miss practices, he worked with younger players, a complete team man."

Houston was a six-time First-team All-Pro (two were consensus) and a three-time Second-team All-Pro and named to twelve Pro Bowls. He was voted to the 1970s All-Decade Team and the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team and First-ballot Hall of Famer.

He picked off 49 passes (second all-time among strong safeties) and scored ten defensive touchdowns (nine picks and one recovered fumble). Five of those came in 1971 (four pick 6s and one scoop and score).

11. Kenny Easley—Big, rangy player who could have been just as good at free safety as he was at strong safety. A big-time hitter with a nasty streak, like Ronnie Lott. Once, when asked by NFL Films if he was vicious he answered: "Oh I'm vicious, I am definitely vicious".

He could "run with the tight ends and thump with the linebackers" according to one scout. Really, even to this day, he's a prototype for the strong safety position. In a sense, if Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor had a baby taking the best traits from both it would be Ken Easley. Well, maybe that's not a good visual but it makes the point as to who Easley was.

He was the AP NFL Player of the Year in 1984 and a member of the 1980s All-Decade team. He was a four-time All-Pro and went to five Pro Bowls and was recently elected to the Hall of Fame.

12. Nolan Cromwell—As his peak, he was as good as Ed Reed or Jack Christiansen in terms of range, speed, ball skills, and instincts who enhanced his physical talent by reading keys and anticipating pattern developments.

 Atlanta's Leeman Bennett said, in 1981 "I don't know of a better athlete than Nolan. You can't draw up a game plan against the Rams without thinking of him." San Francisco's Bill Walsh said, ""He's the kind of free safety who takes away your basic patterns". "What surprises me about Nolan is the way he reacts," said Bear safety Gary Fencik.

He was the NFL's top-rated safety by Proscout, Inc, for the 1979-83 time period and was called a coach on the field who was "smart, covered a lot of ground and had great feel . . . a complete safety".  Joel Buchsbaum called Cromwell "an all-time great". Bud Carson agreed, ""He's in a class by himself, the best free safety ever".

Cromwell was a member of the 1980s All-Decade team. He was a three-time All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro once and went to four Pro Bowls and was the 1980 NFC Defensive Player of the Year.

In 1983 he was moved to strong safety and made the Pro Bowl then he suffered a knee injury in 1984 (he had moved back to free safety due to injury to Johnnie Johnson) slowed his All-Pro roll, but in 1985 and 1986 he was still a low blue/high red player as graded by Proscout, Inc.

He played slot corner in nickel and when Rams went to dime or seven-defensive back "dollar" scheme early in his career. Later in his career, he'd often play one of the linebackers in the nickel/dime package in a role you see a lot of safeties play now. He could cover/tackle/blitz—he was the complete package.

He is likely the best placekick holder ever (always a threat on a fake to win or seal a game) and a top-notch punt blocker as well (most punts blocked in Rams history).

13. Earl Thomas—Another player with great range, was simply great as a middle-of-the-field in the Seattle Cover-3 defense. Good tackler and good ball skills, too. If he has a few good years with the Ravens he will likely punch his ticket to Canton.

Thomas has been named First-team All-Pro five times and a Second-team All-Pro once and has been voted to six Pro Bowls so far.

14. Donnie Shell—Never had a bad "look" in his career as per Proscout, Inc. He was a big-time hitter, great tackler and could play linebacker in certain sub defenses. Could pick off balls, too. Had the most interceptions ever for a strong safety. In 1980 he saved three games for the Steelers with late interceptions, but even so, most scouts thought he was better versus the run than the pass.

Shell played 14 years and was a First-team All-Pro three times and Second-team All-Pro twice more and can proudly wear four Super Bowl rings.

His tackle tally was 993, 51 interceptions, 19 fumbles recovered and scored four defensive touchdowns. His special teams contribution was as a cover guy, was known as "Torpedo" Shell on the Steelers special teams. he was a nickel linebacker in the Steelers 33 nickel package before he secured the starting strong safety position. Even did it some after that as well.

15. Eugene Robinson—Another Proscout, Inc., favorite. Did it all. A poor man's Ed Reed, if you will. He did it all, he had smarts, ranges was a good tackler and could play any coverages well. He had no limitations. "All he does is make plays, is fearless and doesn't miss tackles. He is a team leader" one scout stated during Robinson's career.

Robinson played 16 years and was All-Pro just once and just went to three Pro Bowls, but like Cromwell, his greatness belies the honors. He finished his career with 1,413 tackles, 57 interceptions, 22 fumbles recovered, 24.0 stuffs, and 7.5 sacks.

16. Yale Lary—Another player with great ranges and smarts and good ball skills. A five-time All-Pro and a nine-time Pro Bowler and one of the best punters ever. He was All-Decade for the 1950s and a Hall of Famer, too.

Had great range and was an excellent hitter. He was an all-time great punter and a pretty good punt returner, too. He picked off 50 passes in his career.

17. Jack Butler—Butler was a great cornerback, too, but we put him with the safeties because his best seasons were at that position. He was special in terms of smarts and range and ball skills.

Butler was All-Decade for the decade of the 1950s and was a three-time All-Pro and a  Second-team All-Pro one time. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1957 and average eight picks per 16 games in his career. Elected to the Hall of Fame in 2012.

18. Bobby Dillon—A free safety, ballhawk, one of the top five defensive backs of the 1950s. Dillon was a five-time All-Pro and picked off 52 passes and returned them for 976 yards and five touchdowns. He averaged nine picks per 16 games in his career.

“Bobby was exceptionally fast and cat-quick,” Jerry Kramer said in an interview with Bob Fox. “He had fantastic instincts as well. He could bait a quarterback into throwing his way because of the way he played off a receiver. But then just like that, Bobby would get to the football and either intercept it or bat it away."


19. Jimmy Patton—Patton never was an All-Decade selection but that's because his career began and ended in the middle of two decades. Because of players like that, we created the All-Mid-Decade teams and for the 1955-65 unit we named Patton the top safety.

Patton was a five-time All-Pro and was a Second-teamer once. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1958 and was part of the great Giants defense that was in the NFL Championship game six times (winning one) from 1956-63. He's truly underrated and one of the forgotten great players.

20. Eric Berry—Can play both strong or free safety and was on his way to Hall of Famer career until injuries and illness felled him. Every time he has played at least 15 games he's been a Pro Bowler. So far he's been First-team All-Pro three times and been to the five Pro Bowls.

21. Cliff Harris—On of Dr. Z's favorites. A hitter, great tackler. He was what Al Davis called an "obstructionist-type".  Zimmerman thought Harris was the best example of that "killer-type" of safety ahead of players like Jack Tatum or Doug Plank. George Allen called him a “A rolling ball of butcher knives”. All this earned his nickname of "Captain Crash". 

In 1979 Hall of Fame safety Larry Wilson said "Harris is the top free safety in the business today. He's changed the way the position is being played. You see other teams modeling the way their free safeties around the way Harris plays, strong as can be against the run, able to go back and cover against the pass and striking fear in everyone on the field because he hit so hard". 

However, playing the run well and playing the pass well, and hitting hard seemed to be things other free safeties did before him but we'll take Wilson's word for it. 

Harris would play slot corner in nickel when Randy Hughes would come into the game and play deep. His special teams contributions were as a decent kick- and punt-returner but was more steady than explosive in that role.

A 1970s All-Decade pick a four-time All-Pro (three consensus) and a Second-team All-Pro twice and a six-time Pro Bowler. What's more, he was a key player in two Super Bowl-winning games


22. LeRoy Butler—Began career as a corner, moved to safety but still would play slot corner in sub defense. He could blitz and cover and was a very good tackler. Really, the "complete safety" and that is why we rate him above players like Atwater and Lynch, he was just more versatile. 

Butler was a four-time All-Pro (and four Pro Bowls) and a 1990s All-Decade pick, he owns a ring, picked off 38 passes, and had 20.5 sacks, 30.5 run/pass stuffs and three defensive touchdowns. 

In 1995 and 1996, according to Stats, LLC, Butler had an individual defensive passer rating of 39.4 and 38.9 respectively, quite an amazing rating, giving up just 2 TDs and picking off 10 passes in those seasons. As we said, the man could cover like a corner as a strong safety. 

23. Steve Atwater—Tall rangy player, a great hitter, and good tackler, and very smart. He was a two-time All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowler and won two rings with the Broncos. Has two signature plays—a monster hit on Christian Okoye and a point-blank stab interception off of Jay Schroeder.

Though a free safety, he played in the box a lot, it suited his skills better and he was strong against the run. Atwater totaled 900 tackles (38.0 were stuffs) and 24 interceptions (a bit low for a free safety which has caused some Hall of Fame voters to question his coverage/ball skills a bit). We'd rank him higher but with just five sacks and five forced fumbles and eight recovered fumbles he didn't have the total number of big plays as many of the other safeties.

He's been close to the Hall of Fame, but it's hard to separate some of the safeties that are on that level who are not yet in. It seems there has been a bit of a logjam.

24. John Lynch—A hitter, but also played in Cover-2 a lot, but was at his best around the line of scrimmage. Lynch played 15 years and was voted All-Pro three times (like Atwater low for how many years he played) but went to nine Pro Bowls (like Atwater a high number).

He made 1,057 tackles and 44 were behind the line of scrimmage and he had 13 sacks. Like Atwater, he didn't have a lot of picks (26) for a 14-year player.

25. Darren Woodson—Good cover safety for a strong-side player. Tackled well. Four All-Pros and three Super Bowl rings for Woodson. Woodson finished with 899 tackles (41.5 were run/pass stuffs), he had 11 sacks and 23 picks.

Oddly, there last three safeties (Harris, Butler, Atwater, Lynch, Woodson) didn't make as much of a mark on special teams as most of the top twenty.

26. Adrian Wilson—Physically a beast (6-3, 230), Wilson played close to the line of scrimmage, one of the linebacker/safety hybrids you see everywhere in the NFL now. He was only All-Pro once and went to four Pro Bowls but there were some Pro Bowl-worthy seasons he didn't get the nod.

One of those seasons was 2005 when he had 10 run/pass stuffs and eight sacks among his 109 tackles. Eighteen plays behind the line of scrimmage was an extraordinary number.

He ended his career with 893 tackles 63.5 of which were stuffs and 25.5 were sacks for a total of 89 plays behind the line of scrimmage in 181 games. Take note of his 63.5 stuffs, which is nearly 16 more than his nearest contemporaries, Brian Dawkins and Troy  Polamalu who both had 47.5.

We have him ranked high here, we just didn't want to underrate him as was so often done, but looking at who is ahead of him we've nor sure we wouldn't take him ahead of a couple of the 'box safeties' that are there. In terms of coverage, no, he's not that kind of safety, but for a strong safety in his era, he's a prototype.

27. Eddie Meador—Began his career as a corner, he was good in coverage. Great holder and edge rusher on kick block teams. Gambled a little bit and it cost him some, but also make a lot of game-saving plays, too. He was not that small in stature (5-11, 193) but was nicknamed 'Mouse'. He looks smaller on film than his measurements show

Meador received post-season honors in ten of his twelve seasons including being First-team All-Pro three times and Second-team All-Pro three times and when you throw in his Pro Bowl and All-Conference selections he garnered post-season honors nine times in the decade of the 1960s. He was an All-Decade pick for the 1960s.

He picked off 46 passes and recovered 18 fumbles (second in Ram history) in his career an on special teams, he blocked twelve kicks (all Rams records) and was one of the better holders in league history with good hands and the ability to execute fakes (scored one TD on a fake and threw a touchdown on a fake).

28. Paul Krause—A Cover-3 player who has elite ball skills. Tackling and hitting was not his forte, however. Kind of a one-trick pony, but that one trick (pick off balls in cover-3 or man free) was great and how he made his bones. It's just that he wasn't a complete player. Krause refused to play safety the way the Redskins wanted him to, even Krause said he wasn't a "strong safety". That led to a trade to the Vikings.

But the Redskin loss was a Viking gain because Bud Grant utilized Krause in the best way possible—as a middle-of-the-field safety in their cover-3 defense and let him play centerfield. Grant let the rest of the team handle the run.

Krause was a four-time All-Pro and three times a Second-team All-Pro. In addition, he went to eight Pro Bowls. He is the all-time leading interceptor with 81 picks and led the NFL his rookie season of 1964 with twelve and was voted to the Hall of Fame in 1998.

In terms of interceptions, it is interesting to note that during Paul Krause's career the league-wide interception percentage was 5.3 percent. During Ed Reed's career, it was 3.0 percent. So, covert it how you like, but Krause's 81 interceptions convert to approximately 46 in a 3.0% interception era. Or, conversely, Reed's 64 picks convert to right about 113 in a 5.3% interception percentage era. So that applies to all the early players on this list and the recent ones. Just some food for thought.

29. Dave Grayson—Played corner then moved to safety. On film, his speed stands out. He had great ball skills as well. He led the AFL in interceptions 1968. We could have listed him with the cornerbacks as well, but even though he spent more time as a corner he was more dominant as a safety.

He was an AFL All-Decade selection for the 1960s. He was All-AFL in 1963-66, and 1968-69 and was Second-team All-Pro in 1970. Quite the resume. He finished with 48 interceptions for 933 yards and five touchdowns.

30. Deron Cherry—Great range and great ball skills. Was shorter than some coaches liked, but maybe could be called a poor man's Earl Thomas. Said one 1980s scout, "Cherry is an intelligent, aggressive player whose 'edge' is preparation. Quicker than he is fast, he's not a man-to-man type, he reads quarterbacks without peer. He's better when he's going forward than turning and runner and will stick his nose in there to make tackles".

Cherry was a three-time All-Pro and a First- or Second-team All-AFC seven times. From 1983-88 he averaged nearly seven interceptions a year.

31. Carnell Lake—Was All-Pro as a corner and as a safety and was a very, very effective blitzer. Lake was a Second-team selection on the 1990s All-Decade team. He as All-Pro twice and a Second-team All-Pro three times. Had just 16 picks but had 25 sacks.

32. Rodney Harrison—Maybe the best or most effective safety blitzer ever (30.5 sacks). A big-time hitter and good ball skills. He helped the Patriots to two Super Bowl wins, was a three-time All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro one additional season. In addition to his 30.5 sacks, he had 41.5 run/pass stuffs (tackle for loss) among his 1,200 tackles and also intercepted 34 passes.

33. Gary Fencik—Smart, a leader, good range. His smarts and tackling helped make the 46 possible. Fencik was a four-time All-Pro (one consensus) and a six-time First- or Second-team All-NFC/Pro Bowler. He was a major cog in the 1985 Bears Super Bowl win. Began career as a strong safety then moved to free safety where he was an excellent tackler and great at diagnosing plays.

In the 46 defense, he had a tremendous responsibility since it was an eight-man front and the corners had to play man-to-man and he had to determine quickly which side to help. Of course, the idea was to get so much pressure quickly that the quarterback had to make a quick decision, still, it was up to Fencik to make the read and help the more vunerable corner.

34. Mike Wagner—Excellent cover-2 safety, terrific range and tackling ability. Really, he was a major reason Bud Carson could run his cover-2 so much. though it had been around a bit prior to Carson coming to the NFL, it was really Carson who used it as a 'go-to' coverage rather than a wrinkle.

Wagner is the owner of four rings and was All-Pro in 1973 and Second-team All-Pro in 1976. He was First- or Second-team All-AFC/Pro Bowl in 1973, '75, '76, and '78.

35. Eric Weddle—Smart player, better versus the run, but still very good versus the pass. He's primarily been a free safety but as has been mentioned the distinction between the two is not what it used to be.

So far he's been All-Pro four times and twice a Second-teamer and has been to six Pro Bowls. He led the NFL in interceptions in 2001. He has totaled 1,067 tackles, 34.0 of which were run/pass stuffs, 9.5 sacks, 29 picks, and five defensive touchdowns.

36. Darren Sharper—Bad guy, but his skill set was excellent. Ball skills were likely the best of his era. A four-time All-Pro, twice a Second-team All-Pro and a Second-teamer on the 2000s All-Decade team. He picked off 63 passes and scored 13 defensive touchdowns—a rare number.

37. Dick Anderson—A strong safety who was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 1973 and a smart, solid player. He was a Second-teamer on the 1970s All-Decade Team, a two-time All-Pro and a Second-team All-Pro once and owner of two Super Bowl rings.

38. George Saimes—Could blitz, once had four sacks in one game. Saimes was a four-time All-AFL pick and was named to five AFL All-Star games.

39. Jake Scott—A heady ballhawk, teamed with Dick Anderson with the Dolphins, forming one of the best-ever duos. Scott was All-Pro four times and a Second-team All-Pro once more time and like Anderson has two Super Bowl rings.

George Allen said, "A big-play big-game  player who performed under pressure." Allen also added that he "lacked speed but made up for it by playing smart"

40. Lawyer Milloy—Better in the box than deep, a classic strong safety type. Milloy was All-Pro in 1999 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1998. He was voted to four Pro Bowls. He ended his career 1,438 tackles, 21 were sacks and 27.5 were run/pass stuffs. He picked off 25 passes as well and won a ring with the Patriots in 2001.

41. Tim McDonald—Very similar to Milloy. Twice All-Pro, four times Second-team All-Pro and eight times a First- or Second-team All-NFC pick and helped the 49ers to a Super Bowl ring in 1994.

He ended his career with 1,115 tackles and 49.0 were behind the line of scrimmage and nine more were sacks. He picked for 40 passes and was a pretty good kick blocker.

42. Dennis Smith—A very athletic strong safety, could leap as well as anyone and was a very hard hitter. Smith was twice an All-Pro, once a Second-team All-Pro and in seven seasons he was either a Pro Bowler or All-AFC pick. He had 36 run/pass stuffs and 15 sacks among his 744 career tackles and he also totaled 30 picks and blocked three kicks.

43. Johnnie Gray—Super underrated, trained by Dick LeBeau and ranked very high (high blue) for several seasons by Proscout, Inc. He played free safety for the first part of his career, then moved to strong, was usually the Packers leading tackler and among the leaders in forced fumbles—which usually resulted in his hard hits on receivers. 

Career was shortened due to some leg injuries in the early 1980s. A really underappreciated player. Had the Packers been a better team from 1976-80 he's have been someone vying for All-Pro honors every year. We could have played him ten-fifteen slots higher and felt good about it.

44. Joey Browner—Good range, very good tackler, super-strong hands that would grab a player and throw him to the ground. Vikings often used the SAM backer to set edge so Browner could fill the hole, which he did well. Not the heady player like most safeties on this list but played hard and liked the game.

Browner was Second-team All-Decade in the 1980s and a First-team All-Pro four times (three consensus) and a six-time Pro Bowler. He was a fine special teams player his first couple of years as well.

45. Jack Tatum—Lights out hitter but oddly didn't make a ton of tackles and was not a ballhawk, something you'd have expected. His career-high was seven interceptions and that was in 1980 when he was the Oilers nickelback.

He was All-AFC in 1973-77. He was a Second-team All-Pro in 1974 and 1977 as well and went to three Pro Bowls in that span. He gets a lot of hype, but his overall game may have been too slanted to the monster hits. In that era a team likely expected more than 3.3 picks a year, which is what Tatum averaged with the Raiders.

46. Harrison Smith—An all-around safety who can play deep, play in the box and blitz. As he gets more time in he will move up the list we expect. Smith is one of the really good players in the NFL right now. So far, he's been All-Pro once and Second-team All-Pro once and gone to four straight Pro Bowls.

47. Richie Petitbon—Leaders, tough tackler and good ball skills as well. He played fourteen seasons and was part of the 1963 NFL Championship Bears team. He was a 'left' or strong safety and picked off 48 passes in his career, third-most among pure strong safeties (roughly 1960 to present).

He received post-team honors (second-team and above) in 1962, 1963, 1967, and 1971 and online site Pro Football Reference named him as a Second-team All-1960s Team member. A great leader and smart player who displayed that acumen as an excellent NFL coach.

48. Bob Sanders—A small, compact safety but hit hard, maybe too hard for his body. Was the AP Defensive Player of the Year in 2007 and was All-Pro twice. He got a ring with the Colts but he had a short career due to injuries taking their toll. He never played a full season but in the two seasons he played 14 or more games he made All-Pro, but ultimately played on 39% of his games, the equivalent of three full seasons.

We put him this high based on his peak, but we understand if some would disagree. But if we replaced him, who would it be? A lot of great players are upcoming in this post.

49. Goose Gonsoulin—One of the top few safeties in the AFL, a classic hard-working safety. He was a Second-teamer on the All-Time All-AFL team, he was All-AFL four times and a Second-team All-AFL once.  He led the AFL in picks in 1960 and from 1960-65 he had more picks than anyone in pro football.

50. Merton Hanks—Most remembered for his long neck, but he was a very good free safety for the 1990s 49ers. Hanks was a two-time All-Pro and a two-time Second-team All-Pro and went to the Pro Bowl in those same four seasons.

Hanks began his career as a cornerback, then was a strong safety his second year and in his last season he was a nickel back but he was a stellar free safety in the six seasons in between.

51. Kam Chancellor—A big, in-the-box safety, and a hard, hard tackler. Essentially, he's an extra linebacker. He's been a Second-team All-Pro twice and voted to four Pro Bowls.

52. Malcolm Jenkins—Can do it all, blitz, cover, tackle and very smart. He started his career as a corner but moved to safety quickly. So far he's recorded 782 tackles and 32.5 are run/pass stuffs and 7.5 are sacks. He picked off seven passes and recovered ten fumbles—modest totals, but has taken seven of those 27 plays back for scores.

Jenkins was a second-team All-Pro in 2010 and a Pro Bowler in 2015, 17-18 (and a Pro Bowl alternate in 2016) and owns two Super Bowl rings.

53. Reshad Jones—Like Harrison Smith, moving up the ranks. If he can just stay healthy could end up rocketing up this list. He was a Pro Bowler in 2015 and 2017.

However, PFJ named him Second-team All-AFC in 2012 and 2014 and First-team All-Pro in 2015 and Second-team All-Pro in 2017, so we obviously like him more than the AP, PFWA and SN voting bodies.

In nine seasons Jones already has 31.5 run/pass stuffs and 21 picks and 10.5 sacks and 739 tackles.



54. Charlie Waters—Failed as a corner but excelled as a strong safety. A very smart, enthusiastic player, a leader-type. He was twice All-Pro and a three-time Pro Bowler and earned two rings with Dallas.

He struggles early in his career when he was a cornerback but found a home a strong safety when Cornell Green retired.

55. Bill Bradley—A ballhawk type with good range and good hands. He was solid tackler, not stellar and a very heady player. In addition to his prowess as a safety, he could punt adequately and return punts well.

Bradley was a three-time All-Pro and a four-time First- or Second-team All-NFC/Pro Bowl selection. He led the NFL in picks in 1971 and 1972, becoming the first player to lead the league in consecutive seasons.

56. Bill Thompson—Started as a corner but moved to strong safety in his fifth season and was a fine one for a long, long time. Excellent tackler and a smart player. He received some kind of post-season honors in 1969, 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1981 with the top honor being First-team All-Pro in 1977.

He was a super punt returner as well. He picked off 40 passes returning three for touchdowns and also had four scoop and scores in his career as well. He finished his career with 803 tackles, 25 of which were run/pass stuffs.

57. Kenny Graham—Johnny Sample called him the best strong safety he'd ever seen, he was a good athlete and solid performer for the Chargers.

58. Rick Volk—Great range and great smarts. Played middle-of-the-field for the Colt roll zone (cover-3) coverage. Also good in man-free situations. Good tackler, but not a big-time hitter. Volk was All-Pro in 1968 and 1971 and a Pro Bowl/All-Conference pick from 1967-71.

59. Tim Fox—A smaller type, but made up for it with good speed. Smart and a good hitter. Better versus the run than the pass, was talked about to move to strong safety at one point. He was a Pro Bowler in 1980 and named to Dr. Z's All-Pro team in 1982 and played at that level in 1979 and likely 1981 as well. A back injury slowed him with the Chargers and was released and plays some dime back for the Rams as a safety in 1985 and 1986.

60. Spider Lockhart—Another underrated player, could be very effective as a blitzer and could cover well as well. Maybe not as big a hitter as some in his era. He was a Pro Bowler in 1966 and 1968 and a Second-Team All-Pro and All-NFC in 1970. His first two years were as a cornerback and then moved to free safety in 1967.

61. Rosey Taylor—Good coverage and smarts, paired with Richie Petitbon for one of the best tandems ever.

62. Eric Turner—All-Pro in 1994 when he led the NFL in picks, Turner was a Pro Bowler that year and in 1996. Was known as a solid hitter and big-play safety.

63. Mike Reinfeldt—Outside of Nolan Cromwell and Johnnie Gray he was the best free safety in the late 1970s through the early 1980s as ranked by Proscout, Inc., He was a ballhawk and smart, but not a speed guy. He led the NFL in picks in 1979 with 12 and was a consensus All-Pro pick and in 1980 he Second-team All-AFC

64. Wes Hopkins—Great hitter, an intimidator who could also cover well and do the little things some of the big-hitters didn't do. He was All-Pro and All-NFC in 184 and 1985 with 1985 being a 'consensus' All-Pro year for him, making the majority of All-Pro teams.

65. Henry Jones—A shorter strong safety, his forte was coverage. He picked of eight passes in 1992 to lead the NFL and was a consensus All-Pro for his efforts.

66. Mark Carrier—A throwback to the 1970s one of the last safeties who laid hard licks all the time. Carrier said, "That was how I was taught and how I will always play the game".

 As a rookie, he led the NFL in picks with ten in 1990 making the first of three Pro Bowls that year. He was All-Pro in 1990 and 1991 as well.

67. Tony Greene—A ball-hawking free safety, a smaller player, but tough enough. He was All-pro in 1974 and a Pro Bowler in 1977 and stole 29 passes from 1974-77. Could play corner as well.

68. Jerry Norton—Norton led the NFL in picks in 1960 and was All-Pro that year and the following year. He also played in five Pro Bowls from 1957-61. He was a very good punter and played some offense early in his career.

69. Dave Duerson—Would excel today in the linebacker/safety hybrid roles that are common today. He would often play a de facto safety spot (like Todd Bell and Doug Plank before him) in the 46 defense, but he could tackle, hit, make some plays on the ball and collect sacks. He made a lot of plays in that defense.

70. Blaine Bishop—Another small-type safety who was aggressive and smart. He was a Second-team All-Pro pick in 2000 and went to four Pro Bowls. A box safety who amazingly had just five interceptions in his career. He had more than twice that many forced fumbles (12).  He totaled 734 tackles and 47 of them were tackles behind the line of scrimmage or sacks.

71. Dwight Hicks—Played some corner in his career and even when he was a starting safety would often move to corner in nickel. Was the leader of the early 1980s 49ers Secondary "Dwight Hicks and the Hot Licks".

72. Johnnie Johnson—Underrated, another player who could do it all. A hitter, a good cover guy (could play corner in dime) and would play both strong- and free safety. Great, great range but could very solid in the box. When Rams went to dime packages from 1980-82 he'd play corner most of the time.

Johnson was All-Pro in 1983 but never went to a Pro Bowl. He was overshadowed by playing with Nolan Cromwell and Pat Thomas and Rod Perry (all of whom were All-Pro/Pro Bowl types). Johnson in 1981, for example, didn't have an interception had 99 tackles, 6 were for losses plus four sacks forced three fumbles, recovered five and blocked two kicks. He recovered more fumbles than one player in the Rams long history (19) and picked off 22 passes.

Before he broke an ankle in 1984 he averaged the following numbers per 16 games 99 tackles, five stuffs, four fumble recoveries, two sacks, 2.2 interceptions, 20 passes defensed, one forced fumble, one blocked kick. After that, 1984 to the end of his career all those numbers went down except for picks, which went to 3.3 per sixteen games.

73. Jim Norton
A three-time AFL All-Star pick he was also All-AFL in 1962 and a Second-team All-AFL selection in 1961 and 1967. He picked off 45 passes in nine seasons for the Oilers. He was a fine punter, too.

74. Gary Barbaro—A tall rangy guy with hands, anticipation and could hit some, as well. A top ball-hawk. He was All-Pro in 1982 and 1982 and was Second-team All-Pro in 1980 as well (and you can throw in All-USFL in 1984). Barbaro averaged six interceptions a year during his NFL career with a high of ten in 1981 and eight in 1977.

75. Bill Simpson—Learned his tackling from having to tackle Billy Joe Dupree in practice at Michigan State. Simpson was a big-play free safety and showed up in big games with both the Rams and Bills. His knees went bad on him and had to sit out 1979 before reporting to Bills.

Simpson was All-NFC in 1977 and 1978 and in 1976 he had 6 picks and recovered five fumbles in the regular season then had a pick-six in the playoffs which was one of his nine playoff interceptions.

He could block a punt for you once and a while, too.


76. Dave Elmendorf—Solid, smart, and very good tackler but not a big-time hitter. He was All-Pro in 1974 and Second-team All-Pro in 1975. Elmendorf was a decent, but not stellar punt returner early in his career.

77. David Fulcher—An extra linebacker-type. Had good agility for his size when he was in shape, but sometimes would put on some extra pounds. But, he was good enough to be All-Pro in 1989 and a Second-team All-Pro in 1988 and 1990, picking off 17 passes in those three years. He was a Pro Bowler and an All-AFC selection those same three years as well. However, three years after that 1990 Pro Bowl he was out of the NFL.

78. Jairus Byrd
We expected more from Byrd whose last season was 2017. He led the NFL in picks as a rookie in 2009 (he was Second-team All-Pro that year) and an All-Pro in 2012 and was a three-time Pro Bowler by his fifth season. Then he signed a big-money contract with the Saints and never regained his production that he enjoyed with the Bills.

79. Mark Murphy—Big hitter with a nose for the ball (27 picks from 1977-83, his years as a starter) but he didn't last long. A tall (6-4) rangy type he led the NFL in interceptions in 1983, when he was All-Pro and part of the Redskins 1982 Super Bowl win (when he was Second-team All-NFC).

80. Roy Williams—Williams was a five-time Pro Bowler and a one-time All-Pro. He was best in the box, blitzing and making run stops but, at times, would show some ball skills. He had 11.5 stuffs and 7.5 sacks to go with his 20 picks and 593 tackles.

81. Dashon Goldson—All-Pro once and a two-time Pro Bowler, Goldson was a solid tackler in the good 49ers defense in the early 2010s.

82. Tommy Casanova—A strong safety most of the time, though he was a free safety a bit. Smart, aware, good ball skills and excellent tackler. All-Pro in 1976 and he was Second-team All-AFC in 1972, a Pro Bowler in 1974 and All-AFC in 1975, 76 and 1977. He retired after 1977 to attend medical school.

83. Doug Plank—A ferocious hitter, in the Jack Tatum mold. Was essentially a linebacker in the 46 defense which was named after his uniform number. He went to the USFL in 1983 after eight seasons with the Bears.

84. Devin McCourty—Another of the players who began as a corner before moving inside. He was All-Pro in 2010 and a Second-team All-Pro in 2013 and 2016. Excels at the complex Belichick coverages and also was a decent kick returner. Owns three Super Bowl rings.

85. Will Sherman—Sherman was a right (free safety) was a tall (6-2) but not as tall as the left safety the Rams had at the time (Don Burroughs). He led the NFL in picks in 1955 and was All-Pro that season, a Second-team All-Pro in 1956 and 1958 and he was All-Conference in 1957. However, after that, he was nicked with injuries for a couple of seasons and ended up with the expansion Vikings in 1961.

86. Glover Quin—Led the NFL in interceptions in 2014 and went to the Pro Bowl (he was Second-team All-Pro as well). A solid, steady type who generally plays free safety but has spent some time near the line of scrimmage as well.

87. Marcus Robertson—He was All-Pro in 1993, though didn't go to the Pro Bowl (like Johnnie Johnson in 1983) but was a very dynamic free safety for a lot of years. He had a couple of seasons (1997 for one) where he made enough plays to be recognized as a Pro Bowler as well.

He paired with strong safety Blaine Bishop to form one of the better long-term safety tandems in recent memory. From 1993-97 he picked off 19 passes in what amounted to four full seasons (he missed all but two games in 1995).

88. Don Burroughs—Burroughs played ten seasons and picked off 50 passes in that time. In fact in 1955 Burroughs is the second rookie in NFL to intercept three times in his first game  (Lujack was the first). He was a left safety  (strong side) until his final three seasons. He was a Second-team All-Pro in 1960, 1961 and 1962 and he won a title with the Eagles in 1960. He was a tall, thin player (6-4, 190).

89. Bennie Blades—Bennie was a Second-team All-Pro in 1988, 1990 and 1991. He began career as a strong safety then moved to free safety and then for his final two years be moved back to the strong side. One of the first University of Miami athletes in what became a flood of talented players that entered the NFL.

90. Tom Myers—A smaller, heady safety. He was named All-Pro by Pro Football Weekly in 1979 and he was just as good in 1978 and 1980. Made a lot of tackles for the Saints, especially late in his career.

91. Mark Cotney—Well built athlete, excellent hitter, and tackler, but little speed for a safety. A Paul Zimmerman favorite and made Zim's All-Pro team in 1983.

92. Lindon Crow—Mostly a safety Crow did spend some time as a corner in the middle of his career. He led the NFL in interceptions in 1956 when he was a Cardinal (as mostly a corner). He was a three-time Pro Bowler and a Second-team All-Pro twice. He also played some offense in his career as well.

93. Landon Collins—When he gets more years in he will shoot up the list. We've docked him for having only four seasons in the NFL so far. He had a monster year in 2016 when he was All-Pro and a Pro Bowler and he's gone to the last two Pro Bowls (2017, 2018) as well.

Better versus the run than the pass, but can really do work in the box. We will see if he can sustain his production.

94. Sean Taylor—An homage pick, dedicated to what Taylor may have been able to accomplish. One of the most fluid safeties you could ever hope to see, he had range, speed and was a solid tackler. He could have been a top 20 or even top 10 guys on this list if he hadn't been shot and killed by intruders to his home. In four years he went to two Pro Bowls and was a Second-team All-Pro once.

95. Roman Harper
A box safety who would play a hybrid linebacker a lot, especially in the Gregg Willams 33 nickel package. He was a Pro Bowler in 2009 and 2010 largely due to the success he had in that package.

He ended his career with 819 tackles, 18 of which were sacks and 29 were run/pass stuffs. He picked of just 11 passes in his career (there are players on this list who had more than that in a single-season) and he forced 16 fumbles.


And here are some other fun names. Not in any order, really. Some had short careers, Schnellbacher, Doll, Baker and Sanders, for example, were like brilliant shooting stars flashing across the NFL for a short time So call them 96-99

Others didn't get many "Alls" (post-season honors such as Pro Bowls) but were steady, solid players. Let's say that they are all tied for 100th. And trust us there were many other notables that we deleted so this didn't turn into a book

#96-99
Otto Schnellbacher
Spec Sanders
Dave Baker
Don Doll

Tied for 100th
Leonard Smith
Ryan Clark
Burgess Owens
Brig Owens
Reggie Nelson
Mike Brown
Antoine Bethea
Andy Nelson
Tom Keane
Jerry Stovall
Jerry Logan
Glen Edwards
Vann McElroy
Michael Downs
T.J. Ward
Carlton Williamson
Brock Marion
Bubba McDowell
Thom Darden
Joe Scarpati
Bruce Laird
Randy Logan
Lyle Blackwood
Keith Bostic
Toby Wright
Chuck Cecil
Mark Murphy (the other one)
Louis Oliver
Beasley Reece
Robert Griffith
Sammy Knight
Nick Collins
Lloyd Burruss
O.J. Atogwe
Clendon Thomas
George Atkinson
Keith Lyle
Kerry Rhodes

The final 38 are all excellent players in their own right. It's just that these list get very long and as you go further down the "Bell Curve" gets very fat and there is not much, if any, difference between players from say, 45-135 (to throw out a couple of figures). 

23 comments:

  1. I remember Tommy Myers as kid. The guy was a gamer stuck on a bad defense. Played his heart out every game.

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  2. Great list!
    Wish you would have added the career stat lists for the safeties that you did for the Corners.

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  3. "In terms of interceptions, it is interesting to note that during Paul Krause's career the league-wide interception percentage was 5.3 percent. During Ed Reed's career, it was 3.0 percent. "

    Isn't that at least partially balanced out by the fact that there is more passing now? Shouldn't the weighting factor be total # of interceptions, not interception rate?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Yes, far more passing... so lots of ways to look at it more it depth. But you'd also need to know what % of "new passes" are short throws with almost no chance of interception. But this wasn't an article about the change in the passing game, it was a list of the top safeties ever and looking at their complete game and skills and we used a back of the envelope calculation>

      Let me guess, Viking fan?

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    2. Nope, 49er fan, no partisanship whatsoever regarding Reed vs. Krause. Just think it's facile to base the weighting *strictly* on the difference in interception rates. I still think INTs vs. total # of INTs in the league would be the best way to do it. That would automatically take into account whether today's passes are "less interceptable" or not. Isn't that sorta how they do "by era" weighting" for say QB? Reed might still come out ahead for the reasons you say.

      Delete
    3. Of course "total # INTs in the league" would still have to be adjusted for # of teams, # of games. Maybe INTs/game?

      Delete
    4. Not that interesting in mirco stats when it comes to rating players. If that were to happen maybe neither Reed nor Krause would come up on top. INTs were only small part of Reed's game. We rated Dawkins high and he didn't have a lot of picks.

      The stat we used was simply to illustrate Krause had a lot more chances to pick off passes than modern players and that is true.

      It was simply one data point among many.

      Delete
  4. Great list as usual John...

    Reed was great, but I not only believe Lott was the best safety, but the best defensive player in NFL history...He might be the greatest PLAYER in NFL history, but Walter Payton, Joe Montana and maybe Jim Brown could challenge that.

    I believe Ken Houston was next with Reed being number three, but just barely...I loved Emlen Tunnell as well.

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    Replies
    1. Ed Reed was better than Lott as a free safety. Lott lost some speed and moved to strong safety and got by on rep for a few years. I love Lott but Reed better.

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  5. Comprehensive list. Here is mine:1 Lott 2 Tunnel 3 Reed 4 Larry Wilson 5 Houston 6 Willie Wood 7 Brian Dawkins 8 Yale Lary 9 Christensen 10 Polamalu 11 Krause 12 Easley 13 Earl Thomas 14 Atwater 15 LeRoy Butler 16 Darren Woodson 17 Lynch 18 Cromwell 19 Dillon 20 Eric Berry 21 Jake Scott 22 Rodney Harrison 23 Dick Anderson 24 Joey Browner 25 Cliff Harris 26 Ed Meador 27 Donnie Shell 28 Deron Cherry 29 Johnny Robinson 30 Carnell Lake 31 Eugene Robinson 32 Tim McDonald 33 Dennis Smith

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  6. Sorry but Sean Taylor is top 5 easily...all you gotta do is look at his highlight reel from his 3 and a half years and see the plays he was making before he even reached his prime....and if you dont see it, then you are blind.

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    Replies
    1. Had to play 5 years to be considered for the list.

      Delete


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    ReplyDelete
  8. And Tatum at 45 and Dawkins at 5? Thats insane

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  9. I just found these lists and am enjoying them immensely! Thank you, John!!

    Is this list "Best Safeties" or "Best players at the Safety Position?"
    I ask because I expected to see Sammy Baugh on here somewhere (and maybe Don Hutson, too).
    Where would you rank their safety play compared to the all-time greats?

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  10. TJ troup would be better at that----and Chris Willis did the pre-WWII guys

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  11. Pro Football Refence lists Eddie Meador as having 22 fumble recoveries instead of the 18 you have listed here. This would put him ahead of Nolan Cromwell's 19 for most all-time on the Rams. Is this correct?

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    Replies
    1. we list only defensive fumble recoveries, so if someon recovered their own fumble like on a punt return, we don't count it in our total

      Meader recovered 4 Ram fumbles --so it was not a defensive statistic

      Delete
  12. Mr. Turney- Where would you rate Jim David- I did not see him on the CB or S list but he was a very good DB.

    ReplyDelete