10 Best NFL Safeties of All Time
NFL safeties are the the last line of defense, enforcers who deliver punishment, force turnovers, and are charged with preventing the big play. At defensive back, every snap is a do or die scenario, where the safety man can either jump what appears to be a swing pass out in the flat for a loss, or get burnt deep on a wheel route for a 65-yard touch down.
The all time greats trusted their instincts to wreak havoc, trash opposing game plans, and put offensive coordinators out of work. In run support, elite safeties would chomp at the bit to go eight in the box, take on pulling guards, and destroy the ball carrier at the point of attack. These run stoppers didn’t mind getting down and dirty, and would often crash into the pile to deliver a timely forearm shiver, just before the whistle blew. In pass coverage, the greats patrolled the defensive backfield as center fielders that could either take an interception back to the house, or lay the smack down upon lightweight wide receivers. The greatest NFL safeties of all time always made their presences felt out on the gridiron.
10. Yale Lary
In Detroit, Yale Lary anchored the greatest NFL secondary of all time. The 1960s Detroit Lions’ defensive backfield featured Lary alongside fellow Hall of Famers Dick “Night Train” Lane and Dick LeBeau. In coverage, Lary was a force, as he snagged 50 interceptions during his 13-year career. Interestingly, Lary was also a skilled special teams player, who returned kicks and will also go down as one of the game’s greatest punters. Lary actually led the League in punting on three separate occasions — in 1959, 1961, and 1963. In 1963, Lary boomed kicks for a 49-yard per punt average. As a Detroit Lions’ stalwart, Yale Lary was to appear in nine Pro Bowls — between 1953 and 1964.
9. Willie Wood
At free safety, Willie Wood was the last line of defense behind the likes of fellow Hall of Famers Ray Nitschke, Herb Adderley, Willie Davis, and Henry Jordan on the Frozen Tundra. As a leader of this defensive unit, Wood was to win five NFL championships between 1961 and 1967. In terms of Green Bay mystique, Wood is best remembered for his Super Bowl I 50-yard interception run back against the Kansas City Chiefs. Wood’s pick changed the game and converted a 14-10 nip and tuck battle into a 35-10 Green Bay rout over the AFL Chiefs. Wood hung up his cleats in 1971, after hauling in 48 interceptions and making eight trips to the Pro Bowl.
8. Steve Atwater
Steve Atwater was the greatest run-support safety of all time. Atwater effectively performed as the fifth linebacker, in Denver’s 3-4 defense. As a tackling machine, Atwater compiled more than 120 tackles during his first five NFL seasons. In his 1990 sophomore season, Atwater tallied an all-around 173 tackles, two forced fumbles, two interceptions, and one sack. As a winner, Atwater captained the 1998 Denver Broncos defense that witnessed a gritty John Elway go helicopter-airborne for first down yardage and a Super Bowl championship.
At a rangy 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds of muscle, Atwater laid the wood in the Mile High City. Atwater simply had no regard for human life and will forever be a staple of devastating hit highlight reels. In pass coverage, vintage Atwater often arrived with the football, before lifting a receiver off his feet and driving him into the ground, as if he were a ragdoll.
7. Emlen Tunnell
Emlen Tunnell was professional football’s original ball-hawk and the self-proclaimed “first black everything.” In 1948, Tunnell broke the color barrier for the New York Giants. From there, Tunnell went on to become the first African American player to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in 1967.
According the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tunnell dropped back as the “strut” in New York’s umbrella defenses. For modern-era fans, Tunnell effectively played the safety role in a dime defense. Nicknamed “offense on defense,” Tunnell retired with a then record 79 interceptions (now 2nd of all-time), for 1,282 return yards and 4 touchdowns, in 14 years with the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers. As an all-around athlete, Tunnell also led the NFL in punt return yardage in 1951 and 1952.
6. Larry Wilson
Historically, Larry Wilson labored in relative obscurity for the moribund St. Louis Cardinals [editor’s note: not to be confused with the MLB team of the same name, the St. Louis Cardinals are now based in Arizona] franchise. Wilson was credited for his perfection of the safety blitz, where he would time his approach to the line of scrimmage alongside the snap count and simply tee off upon the opposing quarterback. In coverage, Wilson was also a force to be reckoned with throughout his 13-year career. In 1966, Wilson snagged 10 interceptions for 180 return yards and two touchdowns.
Certainly, Wilson never dreamed of a Hall of Fame career, as a 1960 seventh round pick out of the University of Utah. In training camp, Wilson was a disaster on the offensive side of the ball and at cornerback. Larry Wilson, of course, impressed his coaches when he would crash down into the pocket on the safety blitz to take his shots. With the safety blitz, a star was born.