Lists and the like fill the NFL blogosphere during this time of the year, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all. Beyond simply defending my own practices, these lists, when done correctly, do a great job of previewing the league holistically and tabbing certain players worth keeping a close eye on next season.
It was pretty difficult to rank the top ten safety tandems, and I found myself crossing out more talent than I would have liked. In the end, I strove to go for the best duos and not simply teams where one great safety simply carries an uncertain commodity. As such, the San Diego Chargers, Kansas City Chiefs, and New England Patriots were incredibly tough cuts. Duron Harmon, Husain Abdullah, and Jahleel Addae/Marcus Gilchrist could conceivably form a great tandem with an elite safety, but I didn’t want to make any assumptions. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Miami Dolphins, and Oakland Raiders were also difficult cuts, so keep that in mind if you have any complaints.
The Lions snuck in by a hair over the Dolphins, and I decided to go with the duo that played better last season. Reshad Jones was dynamite in 2012 and Louis Delmas is very good when health, but both Quin and Ihedigbo played very well for the Lions and Baltimore Ravens, respectively, last season. Ihedigbo is technically a question mark at strong safety, because he was a well below-average starter for his entire career before experiencing something of a renaissance under Ravens DBs coach Teryl Austin. He wasn’t awful in coverage for the first time in his career, and he consistently made big plays in run defense. Austin is Ihedigbo’s defensive coordinator with the Lions, so here’s to hoping he can recapture that magic.
Glover Quin is one of the NFL’s most underrated safeties, and he is almost a top ten talent at the position. Capable of playing at either free or strong safety, Quin was forced to play in the “SS” role in name only last season with Delmas at free safety. A former cornerback, Quin made the switch to safety while with the Houston Texans, and he’s been better off for it ever since.
Both of these guys are solid players, and they truly work better when in a tandem. Nelson is as safe as it gets, as he rarely gets burned or misses a tackle back there at free safety. Iloka was one of the best strong safeties in coverage last season, as the Pro Football Focus tracked him with just a 58.8 QB Rating allowed, and he didn’t allow a single touchdown reception compared to six passes defended. He doesn’t make big plays, but, like Nelson, he’s a steadying presence at the back end of one of the NFL’s premier secondaries with the likes of Leon Hall at corner.
8. Pittsburgh Steelers Mike Mitchell, Troy Polamalu
Mike Mitchell benefited from an elite front seven while with the Carolina Panthers, but I think he’s a legitimately solid starting safety in this league and will surely be an upgrade over Ryan Clark, who had a major down year in 2013. Charles Godfrey‘s injury could have been a huge blow for both the skill and leadership in the Panthers secondary, but Mitchell stepped right in and quickly established himself as a playmaker and leader on the team. Polamalu, meanwhile, isn’t overrated anymore, because people are actually shelling him unnecessarily. He’s still one of the top ten safeties in the game, and it’s unfair to only point out his major struggles against the New England Patriots as a reason to call him washed up. Polamalu made plays all over the field in run defense, and he had a huge bounce-back season in coverage.
Eric Reid shattered my expectations last season, and he made Trent Baalke look like a genius for trading up for the tools-y LSU Tigers product in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. Honestly, Reid is a much better free safety than Dashon Goldson, but that’s also because Goldson is a strong safety miscast as an FS. An athletic specimen, Reid excels in deep coverage and has terrific ball skills. Right now, the only glaring weakness in his game are his missed tackles, but those will get better with experience.
The Indianapolis Colts failed to find an adequate replacement for Antoine Bethea, who became the 49ers “adequate replacement” for Donte Whitner. While Bethea is no Whitner (not many players are top ten safeties), he’s a solid strong safety with better coverage skills than the average SS. On paper, he looks like a great complement to Reid. Jimmie Ward figures to play as a nickel corner next year, and that’s the only reason why I didn’t list him up top.
I know this is supposed to be a duos list, but it’s critical that I list all three safeties here in order to justify why I ranked the Titans ahead of the 49ers. The order among 6, 7, and 8 is almost interchangeable, and this is especially true between the 49ers and Titans. But at the end of the day, I couldn’t ignore the fact that the Titans have three safeties who played well last season, and the funny thing is that their third safety (Wilson) is better than their starters. Wilson has consistently been one of the more underrated defensive backs in the game, and his leadership, solid run defense, and sound work in coverage are real assets for the Titans whenever he’s on the field.
The starting duo of Griffin and Pollard is pretty darn good as well, and Griffin is no longer overrated as many have taken better notice of his true strengths and limitations. Both players work perfectly in tandem, with Pollard being the hard-nosed man in the box and Griffin shoring things up in deep coverage.