Earlier in the week, we revealed our cornerback rankings, prompting fewer pitchforks hurled this direction than anticipated. Staying in the secondary, we turn our attention to the safeties.
Troy Polamalu was the best safety in the league last season. No surprise. The long-time Steeler is one of those players who changes the course of the game simply by being on the field. He might not be the best safety in 2012, because there are a number of other established stars at the position, like Adrian Wilson, and a notable group of rising stars like Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Jairus Byrd and a few others.
As with all things ranked, debate is expected. Let us know in the comments your opinion on the order presented here.
It seems like every other week Troy Polamalu's name came up in the injury report, but then he would be there on the field when the game started. He was dominant last season. Ryan Clark does well in his shadow, and they give the Steelers the best group of safeties in the league.
Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor made the most effective pair of safeties in the league last season. Both were part of the team's 2010 draft class, Earl Thomas in the first round and Kam Chancellor in the fifth, and have clearly formed some kind of psychic connection. Maybe they listened to Pete Carroll's motivational tapes.
Seattle is not the only team in the NFC West with an impressive tandem at safety. Arizona boasts Adrian Wilson and Kerry Rhodes. I suspect the Cardinals might have been able to scratch their way above .500 had Rhodes been healthy for all 16 games.
I bought the hype with this team, admittedly. Adding some muscle up front is going to make this secondary even better. Jairus Byrd has the makings of a superstar and a knack for being around the ball.
A healthy season from Eric Berry should bump the Chiefs up the list; few players were as missed by their team. Kendrick Lewis is an up-and-comer too.
They have Ed Reed, who scared the hell out of everyone with retirement talk this spring. Bernie Pollard's excellent play was rewarded with a four-year extension. It will be interesting to how many seasons Reed has left.
Donte Whitner gave the 49ers an run-stuffing safety to play alongside their excellent group of linebackers. Together, Whitner formed the back-end of the league's best run defense, grading out with a -25.4 percent DVOA from Football Outsiders. Dashon Goldson had six interceptions during the regular season and another to help beat the Saints in the playoffs. He received the franchise tag as a reward.
Michael Griffin also got a franchise tag this spring, and signed a new five-year deal. That's the price to be paid for the kind of assurance he gives the team's backfield. Jordan Babineaux was easily the best former Seahawk to join the team last season.
For all the Chargers' problems, safety is not one of them. After signing the largest contract of any player at his position last August, Eric Weddle led all safeties with seven interceptions last season. They added Atari Bigby in the offseason to handle strong safety duties. If he cannot stay healthy, third-round pick Brandon Taylor from LSU is waiting in the wings.
10. Oakland Raiders
Oakland's safeties are going to be busy this year after losing any sure things the team used to have at cornerback. Tyvon Branch signed his franchise tender, eliminating one offseason worry for the Raiders. Michael Huff was effective last season, but missed five games. Matt Giordano proved to be a solid option as a third safety.
More: Ranking the cornerbacks
11. Houston Texans
The addition of Johnathan Joseph got all the headlines, but Danieal Manning proved to be an important part of Houston's defensive miracle in 2011. A second season at strong safety should help converted corner Glover Quinn.
12. Dallas Cowboys
Gerald Sensabaugh may not be among the superstar safeties in the league, but he is an essential part of Dallas' defense. Free agent addition Brodney Pool knows Rob Ryan from their Cleveland days. The more physical Barry Church could still beat him out for the starting job.
13. New York Giants
Kenny Phillips has developed into a very good player, setting up a big decision for the Giants after this coming season when he is eligible for free agency. New York really needs Antrel Rolle to start playing up to $37 million contract they gave him. Second-year safety Tyler Sash could push for playing time.
Roman Harper led his team and all safeties with seven and a half sacks last year and he plays the run well. Malcolm Jenkins had a down year in 2011, getting abused by Matthew Stafford in the playoffs. The addition of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo should benefit both safeties, and could also make contributors out of the players behind them on the depth chart.
15. Atlanta Falcons
I believe William Moore can climb into the elite ranks of safeties with a full season of play this year. He had a solid second season in 2011, but was limited by a variety of ailments. Thomas DeCloud is a weak link, but the Falcons were happy enough to give him a five-year contract extension. A better group of corners behind Brent Grimes could help.
Morgan Burnett got off to a decent start in 2010, his rookie year, before landing on injured reserve with a torn ACL. He started all 16 games last year with very respectable results. Charlie Peprah had five interceptions as the other half of the safety duo. It made the loss of Nick Collins easier to swallow, but the Packers will still miss him. M.D. Jennings is seeing more reps in spring practice, and fourth-round rookie Jerron McMillian has the raw talent to emerge.
Jacksonville's pass defense suffered from injuries (especially at corner) last season, spoiling Dawan Landry's first season with the team. Injuries limited Dwight Lowery to just 13 games. Both players have talent, and could benefit if the other parts of the Jaguars defense can hold up their end of the bargain.
18. Denver Broncos
Quinton Carter replaces the legendary Brian Dawkins, after the latter called it a career. More snaps at strong safety should benefit Carter. He has to hold off Rahim Moore, a second-round pick last season, who could also be in the mix behind free agent addition Mike Adams.
19. St. Louis Rams
Quintin Mikell was arguably the league's best safety in 2010. Then he signed a $27 million deal with the Rams. Like the rest of the team, his play suffered. Of course, a team forced to use street free agents as their starting corners makes life tougher on the safeties. If he can rebound, the Rams have a talented youngster in Darian Stewart, who led all safeties with nine passes defensed. Unfortunately, he also had the second-most missed tackles among safeties.
Philly's defense was a mess, as you may have heard. Nate Allen's play improved as the season went on, and Kurt Coleman did yeoman's work taking over for Jarrad Page. They really need Jaiquawn Jarrett, last year's second-round pick, to breakthrough. The addition of O.J. Atogwe this spring was a smart move.
21. Cleveland Browns
Eric Hagg should take a nice step forward in his second year, after injuries kept out for half of last season. Usama Young could win a starting job in camp. T.J. Ward improved in coverage last season, and is more than helpful against the run as the team's strong safety.
Health has been spotty for Patrick Chung, who is an important contributor when he is in the lineup. This is the walk year of his contract, so a 16-game season could make him a very rich man. Free agent Steve Gregory is an upgrade. The decision to draft Tavon Wilson in the second round shocked most draft watchers, who had him ticketed for the later part of day three.
23. New York Jets
The Jets took a gamble on former Redskins safety LaRon Landry, he of the giant bicep. When healthy, he can be a difference maker. Early indications are that the Jets will limit his snaps as part of a rotation with Yeremiah Bell, another free agent addition, and Eric Smith.
Nobody will confuse Reggie Nelson for an elite safety, but he somehow manages to play at an above-average level. Cincinnati grabbed Taylor Mays after the new regime in San Francisco gave the 2010 second-round pick the boot. He has some potential as a hard-hitting type, but needs to stay healthy. Rookie George Iloka is a player to watch down the road, and Robert Sands still has everyone wondering.
Antoine Bethea received a hefty four-year $27 million deal in June 2010. He does play the run well, but his overall play has never measured up to comparable contracts. Tom Zbikowski was brought over from Baltimore, where he backed up Bernard Pollard. Joe Lefeged and David Caldwell round out the rotation.
26. Chicago Bears
Chris Conte was another member of the Bears' 2011 team that ended his rookie season on IR. He showed promise last year as a free safety. Major Wright has his youth working in his favor, but could get some competition from third-round pick Brandon Hardin. Craig Steltz is a handy backup.
27. Detroit Lions
The only thing putting the Lions this high on the list is Louis Delmas. His attempt to play through a torn MCL in the Lions' playoff loss to New Orleans was disastrous. He is the only player of note in Detroit's secondary. A benching in Week 11 did nothing to help Amari Spievey. Veteran Erik Coleman could grab the starting strong safety role from Spievey, but it is unsure if that is an upgrade.
This is an odd situation. They did manage to nab the only blue chip safety in the draft this year, trading down two spots for Alabama's Mark Barron. He is already working as the starting strong safety. Ancient cornerback Ronde Barber was supposed to move to free safety, but any suspension from Eric Wright's DUI could force him back to the outside. Cody Grimm is the third safety.
29. Miami Dolphins
Reshad Jones leveled off after a rough start to his second season. Chris Clemons missed all but a handful of snaps. The most intriguing name at safety in Miami might be converted corner Jimmy Wilson, giving the Phins some potential at the position.
Carolina has mostly spare parts at safety. The spare part that might surprise is Ravens' castoff Haruki Nakamura. He is competing with Sherrod Martin for the starting free safety role. Better, healthier linebackers could help Charles Godfrey at strong safety.
Minnesota surprised draftniks when they traded back into the first round to get Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith. Regarded as the second-best safety in the draft, his skills are a perfect fit for a strong safety job, but the Vikings have him working at free safety. Second-year safety Mistral Raymond has the strong safety job. Jamarca Sanford was terrible last season, and will have to hold off rookie Robert Blanton, another Notre Dame safety, for the third spot on the depth chart.
Washington sent all their safeties packing this spring. They brought in Brandon Meriweather who has always been content to work with about a fifth of his talent. This is his third team in two seasons. Madieu Williams signed a bargain basement deal to be team's other safety. So there's that. Tanard Jackson, a Buccaneers castoff, will likely emerge as one of the starters before October.