The position known as "safety" was dubbed years ago because it was the last line of the defense. While it still exists in the same name, much about the position has changed over the past 10 years.
The coaching point for safeties was "always stay as deep as the deep." Players who were too slow to play cornerback or too small to play linebacker were often sent off to be safeties. Then came the offensive innovations such as flexing tight ends off the line of scrimmage, motioning running backs out of the backfield and three-receiver packages. They changed the value of the safety position, forcing teams to look for defenders who could literally do it all.
Safeties in today's NFL are masters of disguise. They are players who can blitz, serve as the eighth man in the box, line up against No. 3 receivers and possess man-to-man cover skills.
Technically, there are 64 starting safeties across the league. But the emergence of the 'Big Nickel' package made popular by Bill Belichick brings a third safety on the field to replace a linebacker in both 3-4 and 4-3 schemes, utilizing a player who can handle the matchup nightmares offenses present with different formations and packages.
Here is my list of the top 30 safeties, but realize that strong and free safeties are interchangeable in the modern game and listed together. As I have done with the other position rankings this spring, the players are listed in groups of five and in alphabetical order within each group. Each player listed has either an (^) for players on the rise and has room for growth, (>) for players maintaining their status and playing at their peak level or (v) for those who can't sustain their level of play and are on the decline.
3. Troy Polamalu, Steelers (>): The master of every trick in the book. Polamalu has completed a 16-game season in only three of his seven seasons because of his physical style of play. He has missed 13 regular-season games the last three seasons but still has 17 interceptions and 35 passes defended.
4. Ed Reed, Ravens (>): A free safety with special ball-hawking skills. He has missed 10 games in the past three years and still has 11 interceptions in his last 22 games. Reed is a Hall of Fame player and the best deep middle player in the NFL. He's forced 32 turnovers (interceptions and forced fumbles) the last four years.
5. Earl Thomas, Seahawks (^): The only person who has coached both Polamalu and Thomas is Pete Carroll, who told me at the end of the season that Thomas is the closest he's ever seen to Polamalu's skills. Thomas had five interceptions as a rookie, the same number as Reed and more than both Collins and Polamalu.
7. Antoine Bethea, Colts (>): The one constant in a Colts secondary littered with injuries, Bethea hasn't missed a game in three seasons. His numbers aren't great, but he's a solid player on a defense that's always defending the pass because the Colts' offense scores so quickly.
8. Roman Harper, Saints (>): An underrated strong safety who averages 75 tackles per season and will deliver 3-4 sacks as well. He also forced six fumbles last year, another indicator he's always around the ball.
10. Dawan Landry, Ravens (>): A physical player who keeps the secondary tied together when Reed has been out with injuries. He will be a free agent, and Baltimore has to try and retain his services. Landry was in on more than 100 total tackles in 2010.
11. Yeremiah Bell, Dolphins (>): Bell spent most of his first four years as a backup but has been a starter at strong safety the past three seasons, and very productive since 2008. In his last 48 games he has 275 tackles, five forced fumbles, four sacks, four interceptions and 23 passes defended.
12. Ryan Clark, Steelers (v): His skills allow Polamalu be the creative free lancer he needs to be. Clark's production does not show up in gaudy numbers, but his play is solid and he is always in the right place in Dick LeBeau's defense.
13. Charles Godfrey, Panthers (>): Moved from cornerback to safety immediately after joining the league in 2008. He puts up the tackle totals of a strong safety and also picked off five passes in 2010 as he grows more comfortable with the position.
15. Adrian Wilson, Cardinals (>): A bit of a throwback player with excellent skills near the line of scrimmage, but a little lacking in deep coverage ability. Wilson is an excellent leader and over the past two seasons has delivered 162 total tackles, four sacks and seven interceptions.
18. Antrel Rolle, Giants (>): The Cardinals' defense suffered when Rolle left in free agency last year. He had one interception for the Giants in 2010 after recording 10 interceptions during the three previous seasons. A free safety who does a solid job in the deep middle of the field, or in the deep half in the Cover 2.
19. T.J. Ward, Browns (^): The Browns' second-round pick in 2010 -- who at one point was a college walk-on -- was more than a pleasant surprise because of his physical style. The future looks very bright for Ward.
20. Eric Weddle, Chargers (^): He is scheduled to be a free agent and it wouldn't surprise me if new Panthers coach Ron Rivera pursues him. Weddle is very bright and is like a coach on the field. He has 250 tackles the last three seasons and had his finest season against the pass in 2010 with 10 passes defended.
21. O.J. Atogwe, Redskins (>): Now a member of the Redskins, Atogwe seems to always be around the ball making a play. He has 18 interceptions, 31 passes defended and 11 forced fumbles the past four seasons and knows how to tackle.
22. Malcolm Jenkins, Saints (^): Started 15 games in his second season in place of the injured Darren Sharper and made a smooth transition from cornerback with 64 total tackles, a sack, two interceptions, a forced fumble and 12 passes defended.
23. Jim Leonhard, Jets (>): Leonhard is a critical key to Rex Ryan's unique pressure defense. He can blitz, set up the pressure packages, line teammates up and also has return skills. Without Leonhard, the defense didn't look the same. Not bad for a 5-foot-8, 185-pound undrafted player.
24. Brandon Meriweather, Patriots (>): Made the Pro Bowl as an alternate in 2010. He has had some issues off the field, but on the field finds the football with 12 interceptions and 24 passes defended the last three seasons.
26. Pat Chung, Patriots (^): The light went on in 2010 for the second-year player from Kingston, Jamaica. Chung improved dramatically in total tackles (37 to 96), interceptions (1 to 3) and passes defended (1 to 9).
27. Thomas DeCoud, Falcons (>): DeCoud is entering his third season as a starter and is simply solid on the field. He can be schemed into defending both the rush and pass, and has a knack for forcing fumbles.
28. Bernard Pollard, Texans (>): Hard to believe the Chiefs cut ties with him two years ago, but Pollard has made the best of the move to Houston. The Texans' secondary has come under fire, but in two seasons Pollard has 162 solo tackles, five forced fumbles, four sacks, four interceptions and 23 passes defended.
29. Kerry Rhodes, Cardinals (>): He was the quick replacement in Arizona when Rolle went to the Giants. Rhodes seemed to be in the doghouse for the Jets and was released, but delivered in the desert. A rangy free safety-type who compliments Wilson, Rhodes averaged 43.5 yards per return on four interceptions.
30. Quintin Mikell, Eagles (>): Mikell doesn't believe he will be back in Philly, but he will find a new home quickly. He had a career year in 2010, and his 47 starts over the past three seasons is just what a number of teams are looking for.
Keep an eye on
A number of safeties bring something special to the game every Sunday. Bob Sanders (Chargers) has a chance to return to form after injuries, while Tyvon Branch (Raiders), Dashon Goldson (49ers), Donte Whitner (Bills), Reggie Nelson (Jaguars), Michael Huff (Raiders) and Danieal Manning (Bears) round out the list.