Football player holding his helmet

Football player holding his helmet (Photo by wavebreakmedia on Shutterstock)

In football, safeties are the last line of defense – literally. Safeties need to ensure that long passing plays aren’t going over their heads, make tackles in the running game, and even guard tight ends in man coverage. Safeties are undoubtedly one of the most important positions on defense, and great safeties can make all the difference for your favorite team. There have been some amazing athletes that have come through professional football, but which ones deserve to be called the best NFL safeties of all time? 

Before we dive into the list, let’s take a moment to appreciate the passion and enthusiasm of sports fans. A recent study found that sports fans are willing to end friendships over sports. A survey of 2,000 American football fans found that a staggering 52 percent of respondents are willing to call it quits with a friend because that person cheers for a rival football team. Furthermore, the survey sought to discover where fans prefer to watch their favorite team play. Just over 35 percent of fans say they prefer to watch in person at the stadium while 30 percent of respondents prefer to watch their team play from the comfort of their own home

Watching football from the comfort of your cozy couch is a great way to spend a Sunday afternoon in the fall, but those stadiums are packed on game day for a reason. Another study found that the average sports fan is willing to travel to see their favorite team play in person. A survey of 2,000 self-identified sports fanatics examined the lengths people are willing to go to in order to watch their favorite sports team play in person. The survey found that the average fan is willing to travel a whopping five hours and 48 minutes plus spend $762.20 on tickets just to see their favorite team play live. Sounds like a great way to spend a vacation and watch your favorite team play at the same time. 

So, which safeties are considered the greatest of all time? StudyFinds did the research, consulting 10 football and sports-oriented websites in an effort to bring you a consensus list of the best NFL safeties in history. Our list comprises the five most frequently listed safeties from across these sites. Think your favorite safety was snubbed on the list? Feel free to share your thoughts with us in the comments section below! 

aerial photography of NFL logo printed on field
NFL logo printed on a field (Photo by Adrian Curiel on Unsplash)

The List: Best NFL Safeties of All Time, According to Fans

1. Ronnie Lott

The top spot on the list of the best safeties in NFL history belongs to none other than Ronnie Lott. He is a football legend, and he’s easily one of the best defensive players in the history of the NFL, not just safeties.  

“Ronnie Lott is the gold standard of safeties. In fact, he’s arguably the best defensive back in the history of the game. Lott was totally fearless but didn’t play out of control. He was always a step ahead of the offense and knew when it was time to wrap up and when he could really lay out an opposing receiver. Along with his intimidating style of play, Lott was an elite ball-hawk, reeling in 63 interceptions during his time with the 49ers, Raiders, Jets and Chiefs, returning five of them for touchdowns. We all know about his legendary finger amputation, which proves why he was the toughest ever. No one is better than Mr. Lott,” raves Bleacher Report

Lott’s dedication to the sport of football and his toughness are both legendary. Instead of missing games and time throughout the season, Lott famously had part of his pinkie finger amputated. Although Lott openly regrets his decision to amputate, the move helped cement his legacy as one of the best safeties in NFL history

“Widely regarded as the epitome of greatness at the safety position, Lott’s impact on the game is unparalleled. You can make an argument for Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed, but Ronnie Lott is in my mind the most complete safety ever. Drafted by the San Francisco 49ers in 1981, Lott wasted no time making his presence felt. From the moment he stepped onto the field, it was clear that he possessed a rare combination of physicality, intelligence, and leadership. Lott’s style of play was ferocious and uncompromising, making him one of the most feared defenders of his era. He went from one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL to the best safety in the NFL with just a blink of an eye,” writes SOG Sports

Ronnie Lott was a first-round draft pick and his draft status is forever tied to another one of the greatest defensive players in the history of the NFL – Lawrence Taylor. Arguably two of the best in defense, Lott and Lawrence were draft-class rivals and their teams often throughout the early portion of their respective careers.  

“In the 1981 NFL Draft, the Giants selected the greatest linebacker in the game with the No. 2 overall pick. Just a few picks later, the greatest safety in the history of the game was selected by the 49ers with the No. 8 overall pick. Lawrence Taylor or Lott would be a key contributor on a Super Bowl-winning team in six of the next 10 seasons. Lott played 20 postseason games, and his teams were 14-6. Three of Lott’s defeats were to Taylor’s Giants. Lott intercepted nine passes in his 20 postseason games. In his first-ever playoff game, he had five tackles and two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown) in a victory against the Giants,” explains The 33rd Team

2. Ed Reed

The next spot on the list of the best safeties in NFL history is Ravens legend, Ed Reed. Ed Reed played in Baltimore for a decade before eventually playing for the Houston Texans and New York Jets. Reed was great as a rookie, but he really took his game to the next level in his first few years in the NFL.  

“Reed was an immediate starter for the Ravens as a rookie and only needed until his second season to go to the Pro Bowl for the first of nine selections. By his third season, Reed won Defensive Player of the Year honors, establishing himself as one of the elite players in the game. In addition to helping Baltimore win a Super Bowl, Reed would lead the NFL in interceptions three times and was an All-Pro eight times, cementing his legacy as one of the best safeties ever,” explains Franchise Sports

Ed Reed was a natural fit with the Baltimore Ravens franchise. Reed played and starred at the University of Miami, which is Ray Lewis’s alma mater. Ray Lewis was already a star in the NFL, and had one Super Bowl championship to his name, so it only made sense that the Ravens paired him with another Miami Hurricanes player. Together, Reed and Lewis helped lead a devastating Ravens defense. 

“The Baltimore Ravens selected Ed Reed from the University of Miami (Fla.) in the first round (24th overall) of the 2002 NFL Draft. That meant Reed would be teammates with linebacker Ray Lewis. It was a combination that united the second-best linebacker ever and the second-best safety ever. Too bad they never played with a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback,” writes The 33rd Team

For what it’s worth, a lot of NFL fans would call Ray Lewis the best middle linebacker of all time and Ed Reed the best ball-hawking free safety of all time. Regardless of where they’re ranked, there’s no denying Ed Reed’s skills on the football field. One wrong move by the opposing quarterback meant that Ed Reed was taking the ball back the other way for a touchdown and a celebratory dunk on the goalposts

“The long-time Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed didn’t have sexy dance moves, but he was a nightmare for opposing quarterbacks. Reed was a five-time first-team All-Pro & he made nine Pro Bowls with the Ravens. Furthermore, the player that kept Bill Belichick and Tom Brady up late at night won DPOY in 2004. Most importantly, he won Super Bowl XLVII. He finished his career with 64 interceptions (including seven pick-sixes), 139 pass deflections, and 646 combined tackles. Reed was a part of an unnaturally talented defense (which also showcased Ray Lewis, Haloti Ngata, and Terrell Suggs), to say the least,” furthers Pro Football Mania

3. Ken Houston

The third spot on the list of the best safeties in the history of the NFL takes us back to the storied 1970s and Ken Houston. Houston was drafted by the Houston Oilers, so the fit was natural. However, it was his tall, lanky stature and world-class speed that made him such a great safety in the NFL. 

“Part of playing safety at a high level in the NFL requires a diverse skill set. Ken Houston used his height and speed to make his impact on the league. Houston converted nine of his forty-nine career interceptions to touchdowns. Equally important, recovering twenty-one fumbles. Traded for five players in 1973, Houston left Texas for Washington, where he continued his stellar play. In the end, Houston racked up twelve Pro Bowl selections,” writes Full Press Coverage

Ken Houston was well over six feet tall and was a fearless tackler in the run game. He’s the first pure strong safety to make the list, and deservedly so – Houston was a baller. “Ken Houston was one of the greatest strong safety of all time being one of the best ever at stopping the running game. Houston was also elite in pass coverage in the flat and the middle zones of his team’s defense. Houston totaled [49] career interceptions and returned 9 for touchdowns, leading the league twice in interceptions returned for touchdowns. Houston was twice selected as a first team all pro in 1975 and 1978,” furthers Knup Sports

Ken Houston had great instincts in the run game, and the legendary safety was more than willing to come up to lay a thunderous hit on a running back. However, Ken Houston was equally dominant against the pass. In his era, NFL teams did not pass as much as they do today, but that didn’t stop Ken Houston from amassing an impressive number of interceptions. 

“Breaking into the top five, we find the legendary Ken Houston, a true icon of the safety position. Known for his exceptional athleticism, versatility, and ball-hawking skills, Houston dominated the gridiron during his time in the NFL. Houston began his career with the Houston Oilers in 1967 and later joined the Washington Football Team in 1973. No matter the team he represented, Houston left an indelible mark on the game. His ability to make impactful plays was unmatched, as evidenced by his remarkable 49 interceptions over his 14-year career,” explains SOG Sports

4. Paul Krause

The fourth spot on the list of the best safeties of all time belongs to Paul Krause. Krause was a ball-hawking machine during his time in the NFL, and it all started with his stellar rookie season. “The rangy Iowa product star was the dictionary definition of ball skills. Starting in his rookie year, Krause play the totality of his career with the ball finding him, eighty-one times. yes, eighty-one interceptions, which still stands as the all-time interception mark. Imagine a rookie starter pulling down twelve interceptions. Krause possessed one of the most crucial traits that safeties should have,” explains Yardbarker

Paul Krause arguably put together the best rookie season fans have ever seen in the NFL – offense of defense. 12 interceptions are nearly unheard of, but for Krause to do it as a rookie playing only 14 games is amazing. Krause finished with over 80 interceptions for his career and he’s the all-time record holder for career interceptions.  

“With 81 career interceptions, it was impossible to leave Paul Krause off the list. Krause represented the Washington football team and the Minnesota Vikings during his storied career. Krause was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998, having been selected to the Pro Bowl eight times during his 16 seasons in the NFL,” adds Sportskeeda

You would think that Krause’s 12 interceptions in his rookie year would earn Rookie of the Year honors, but they did not. Krause lost Rookie of the Year to his teammate. Still, Krause went on to have one of the most storied careers in Vikings history, and he’s an NFL Hall of Famer. 

“Despite finishing second to teammate Charley Taylor in Rookie of the Year voting, Krause was a Pro Bowler and a First-Team All-Pro during his rookie season in 1964 after leading the NFL in interceptions. From the start of his career, Krause had a knack for picking off passes, something he continued to do throughout his career. After 16 seasons, Krause retired with the NFL’s all-time record of 81 interceptions, a record that still stands today. While only six of those interceptions were returned for touchdowns, the eight-time Pro Bowler is still considered one of the best safeties of all time and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” explains Franchise Sports

5. Troy Polamalu

Rounding out the list of the best safeties in NFL history is none other than Troy Polamalu. Today, Polamalu might be better known for his great hair than for playing safety at an all-time level in Pittsburgh for over a decade, but he’s truly one of the greatest safeties to ever play in the NFL. 

The Tasmanian Devil was selected by the Steelers with the 16th overall selection of the 2003 Draft. Polamalu was selected to eight Pro Bowls, received First Team All-Pro honors four times, Second Team All-Pro twice and was named AFC Defensive Player of the Year in 2010. Polamalu was a big part of the Steelers’ championships following the 2005 and 2008 seasons. In the AFC Championship Game, Polamalu’s interception and 40-yard return for a touchdown with just more than four minutes remaining vaulted Pittsburgh over Baltimore,” writes The 33rd Team

Polamalu intercepted Ravens rookie quarterback Joe Flacco to seal the AFC Championship for his Pittsburgh Steelers and secure the team’s place in Super Bowl XL. Polamalu and the Steelers won Super Bowl XL over the Seattle Seahawks and finally gave legendary Steelers coach Bill Cowher a Super Bowl title. Polamalu is synonymous with those Steelers teams and he’s a big reason why that Pittsburgh defense was so tough to beat in the early 2000s. 

“The heart-and-soul of the Steelers chases down running backs and quarterbacks alike, trademark locks flying in the wind, with more passion and speed than I’ve ever seen. He is equally as valuable against the pass, where he usually is in the right spot at the right time and has displayed some of his most acrobatic interceptions in the most crucial moments for Pittsburgh. That’s the most important factor for Troy’s candidacy here. He has been a part of many huge games and always seems to save his biggest plays for crunch time,” explains Bleacher Report

Polamalu played his college ball at the University of Southern California and he continued the legacy of great Trojans players in the NFL. But, for anyone who never saw Polamalu play, it’s hard to describe his style. He was wild, he roamed all over the field and wasn’t afraid to play right up on the line of scrimmage like a linebacker. The legendary safety was fearless and unpredictable, to say the least, and those aspects of his game played a big role in Polamalu’s success. 

“Polamalu’s playing style was as unpredictable as it was effective. His lightning-fast bursts, fearless dives over the line of scrimmage, and acrobatic interceptions became his signature moves. Whether he was delivering bone-crushing hits, chasing down ball carriers, or dropping back in coverage, Polamalu’s impact was felt all over the field. During his illustrious career, Polamalu earned eight Pro Bowl selections, was named a first-team All-Pro four times, and was a key factor in the Steelers’ success, including winning two Super Bowl championships. His ability to come up with clutch plays in critical moments made him a true difference-maker,” adds SOG Sports

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About Matthew Sherdan

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1 Comment

  1. Greg Brungardt says:

    Give an honorable mention to Jack Tatum