The legendary headhunter set the standard for the position with his teeth-rattling hits and game-clinching interceptions. The cornerback-turned-safety revolutionized the position with his versatile skills and hard-hitting ways. Lott's ability to impact the game as a run or pass defender has spawned a generation of game-changers who occupy the position today.
In evaluating the key components of the safety position, it is important to recognize the two kinds of players who man it: hitters and ball hawks.
Football remains a sport typically won by the team that outhits the opponent, and the presence of a enforcer in the middle of the field has proven to be an invaluable asset. Keen knockout artists capable of delivering intimidating shots on unsuspecting receivers have the ability to change the nature of the game with their physical manner. In addition, these bullies act as extra linebackers against the run by filling alleys with reckless abandon to stop runners in their tracks.
Ball-hawk safeties, with the ability to make plays on the ball and a penchant for coming up with game-changing turnovers, also raise the defense to another level. With the ball increasingly flying through the air on all downs, the presence of a legitimate ball hawk in the back end is necessary.
With the notion that the best safeties in the game offer a combination of both styles, here is my look at the top safeties in the NFL:
1. Ed Reed, Ravens
The five-time Pro Bowler is undoubtedly the league's most feared ball hawk with 43 career interceptions in just seven seasons. Reed led the league in interceptions last season and added to his big-play reputation by returning two for touchdowns. Although Reed isn't the classic headhunter at the position, his uncanny ability to deliver game-changing plays sets him apart from the other standout safeties.
2. Troy Polamalu, Steelers
Pittsburgh's ferocious enforcer continues to provide outstanding production from his deep middle spot. As a tenacious run defender with exceptional rush skills, Polamalu shines in the box. Moreover, his ability to disrupt the running game with his presence gives the Steelers' top-ranked defense an added dimension. Throw in his improved ability to come down with critical interceptions, and the six-year veteran is on the cusp of unseating Reed as the top safety in the league.
3. Adrian Wilson, Cardinals
The eight-year veteran has been regarded among the elite for quite some time, but his stellar performance in 2008 solidified his place near the top of the charts. The two-time Pro Bowler continued to display his exceptional "jack of all trades" ways by tallying 2.5 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles while still ranking as the Cardinals' fourth-leading tackler. Though he is at his best when deployed near the line of scrimmage, Wilson's overall game is superb and makes him worthy of recognition as one of the league's top safeties.
4. Brian Dawkins, Broncos
The venerable 13-year pro still plays the game at a high level at the age of 35. As a fierce competitor with a diverse skill set, Dawkins has the rare ability to seamlessly float from blitzer to deep middle player in any scheme. And his consistent production at an advanced age is not only a testament to his all-around ability but to the work ethic that has made him an all-star-caliber player throughout the years.
5. Michael Griffin, Titans
Tennessee's young star has skyrocketed into this list after just two seasons in the league. As a natural ball hawk with exceptional range and instincts, Griffin already has amassed 10 interceptions in his career, including seven last season. With skills and athleticism that rival some cornerbacks, Griffin is poised to remain one of the league's top pass defenders for years to come.