The NFL's aerial evolution over the past decade has changed the way defensive coordinators build their secondaries. Teams are placing a greater emphasis on adding athletic playmakers with versatile skill sets. While those traits have always been coveted in cornerbacks, the emergence of hybrid tight ends has made it imperative that safeties are able to hit like linebackers and display corner-like cover skills in space. Additionally, defensive coordinators are looking for safeties with the athleticism and explosiveness to be effective pass rushers on blitzes from the second level.
During my time as a defensive back for the Green Bay Packers, I saw firsthand how a versatile safety can change the fortunes of a defense. LeRoy Butler didn't just invent the "Lambeau Leap"; he earned first-team All-Pro honors four times and became the first defensive back to join the 20/20 club (interceptions and sacks). The late Fritz Shurmur tapped into Butler's unique skills by routinely deploying him as an edge rusher in big-nickel packages. Shurmur also would craft clever schemes that assigned Butler to match up with a tight end or slot receiver in coverage. With Butler playing as a hybrid safety/nickelback/linebacker in a variety of exotic sub-packages, the Packers were able to confuse opposing quarterbacks, helping the team field the NFL's top-ranked defense in 1996 -- thanks in large part to Butler racking up 6.5 sacks and five interceptions on the year.
Although it has taken a while for the league to fully adopt the hybrid safety concept, it's apparent that more and more teams are beginning to feature designated playmakers on the second level. With that in mind, let's continue my "Bucky's Best" series with a look at the 10 most dynamic safeties in the NFL today:
10) Aaron Williams, Buffalo Bills: Viewed as a big-bodied press corner when he entered the league in 2011, Williams adjusted nicely to playing on the interior as a hybrid safety in 2013. Williams finished his first season at the position with 82 tackles, four interceptions and 11 passes defensed. Most importantly, he displayed the versatility to cover tight ends and slot receivers between the hashes as well as the athleticism to match up with speedy receivers on the perimeter. Given an opportunity to expand his role following Jairus Byrd's departure from the Bills via free agency, Williams could become a household name in 2014.
9) Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals: The "Honey Badger" is the prototypical nickel defender that every defensive coordinator covets. Mathieu is an athletic safety with corner-like cover skills and a knack for playmaking. He is comfortable aligning anywhere, but he's at his best when deployed near the line of scrimmage as a lurking extra defender against the run or a sneaky rusher on passing downs. He routinely creates turnovers and makes disruptive plays all over the field. Mathieu blew out his knee last December, but if he can return to form, the second-year man has the natural ability to continue revolutionizing how defensive coordinators use nickel safeties.
8) Mike Mitchell, Pittsburgh Steelers: If you're not familiar with Mitchell's name or game, it's time to get acquainted with a budding star. The sixth-year pro is coming off a breakout season where he tallied 66 tackles, four interceptions, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles as a roaming safety for the Carolina Panthers. The Steelers snagged Mitchell in free agency to act as a designated playmaker in coordinator Dick LeBeau's zone-blitz scheme. If he can quickly master the nuances of the system, Mitchell will team with Troy Polamalu to give the Steelers a terrifying tandem in the middle of the field.
7) Kenny Vaccaro, New Orleans Saints: When Saints coordinator Rob Ryan boldly called the second-year pro the best overall safety in the NFL, plenty of observers assumed the defensive wizard was simply pumping up one of the young stars on his defense. But there's something to this bluster. Despite suffering a season-ending ankle injury in Week 16, Vaccaro finished his rookie season with 79 tackles, eight passes defensed, one pick and one forced fumble. The versatile defender held his own in matchups against top-tier tight ends (like Tony Gonzalez and Greg Olsen) while displaying the cover skills to take on Larry Fitzgerald and Brandon Marshall in the slot. With Vaccaro also making cameo appearances at cornerback, it's easy to see why Ryan is buzzing about his young stud in New Orleans.
6) Eric Weddle, San Diego Chargers: When I scouted Weddle at Utah, I believed he was destined to be a ball magnet in the NFL, based on his remarkable production as the two-time Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Weddle routinely came up with interceptions and fumble recoveries while playing a variety of roles for the Utes. He has continued to display his versatility and athleticism with the Chargers as a do-it-all playmaker in the back end. Weddle will roam the deep middle as a center fielder hunting for interceptions on errant passes and overthrows while also lurking around the box as an extra defender against the run or a selective pass rusher on blitzes. Last season, Weddle notched 115 tackles, two interceptions, one sack and one forced fumble in a hybrid role. Those latter numbers could improve in 2014, with a better supporting cast allowing him to be more of a playmaker in the secondary.
5) Kam Chancellor, Seattle Seahawks: At a time when throwback safeties seemingly are being phased out of the league, Chancellor remains a fixture on this list as the ultimate enforcer between the hashes. The 6-foot-3, 232-pounder drops the hammer on receivers venturing over the middle, as evidenced by the teeth-rattling shot delivered on Demaryius Thomas in Super Bowl XLVIII. The Pro Bowler also boasts sneaky athleticism, fine instincts and keen awareness. Chancellor is the master of running under comebacks from the curl/flat position in the zone, as you can see here. With Chancellor also capable of beating up tight ends at the line of scrimmage -- Jimmy Graham had one catch against Seattle in the divisional round of the playoffs -- the Seahawks can lean on their versatile eraser to wreak havoc on opponents.
4) Jairus Byrd, New Orleans Saints: The pass-happy nature of the NFL makes it imperative for elite defenses to feature a ballhawk in the middle of the field. The Saints now have arguably the best center fielder in the game, having signed Byrd to a monster contract this offseason. The sixth-year pro has 22 interceptions in 73 games, thanks to exceptional anticipation, awareness and ball skills. Byrd has a gift for reading the quarterback's eyes to get a jump on passes thrown in his direction. Whereas some safeties guess and gamble to make plays, Byrd is simply an aggressive technician with a great feel for the game. Thus, he is rarely out of position on deep balls, and opponents have a tough time fooling him on double moves or gadget plays. Playing behind an aggressive front seven with a pair of rising pass rushers (Cameron Jordan and Junior Galette), Byrd could take his game to another level in New Orleans.
3) Antrel Rolle, New York Giants: The cagey veteran remains one of the top playmakers in the game despite entering his 10th season in the league. In fact, Rolle is fresh off his best professional campaign. As a former cornerback, he's comfortable manning up against tight ends and receivers in the slot, but he's also adept at patrolling the deep middle. His versatility allows defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to use him in a variety of roles in the Giants' sub-packages to keep quarterbacks guessing in the pocket. Rolle is a proven playmaker with a knack for picking off passes (23 career interceptions, including six in 2013) and creating disruption on the second level. He's an ideal Swiss army knife to counter the versatile offenses setting the pace in today's NFL.
2) Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs: The former No. 5 overall pick has made three Pro Bowls in his four NFL seasons. (Berry essentially missed the entire 2011 campaign after tearing his ACL in the opener.) He has blossomed into a hybrid safety with the skills to cover tight ends and receivers in space, as well as the ability to be a difference maker against the run as an extra defender around the box. In addition, Berry is a disruptive pass rusher with a great feel for slipping through cracks to get home on blitzes. He finished with 3.5 sacks in 2013 and provided a number of splash plays. Given his overall impact, talent and production, Berry deserves this lofty spot -- just behind one of the best defensive players in football.
1) Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks: The leader of the "Legion of Boom" has become the new prototype at the position. Initial concerns about his size seem laughable now. Thomas is a forceful presence against the run, displaying a non-stop motor and relentless spirit that routinely place him around the ball. He is a fearless hitter with a penchant for delivering big shots on runners in the hole. As a pass defender, Thomas is an aggressive ballhawk who flies to the football. His attacking style has produced 15 career interceptions in four seasons, including five in 2013. Lastly, Thomas' ultra-competitive demeanor sets the tone for the Seahawks' secondary, driving the group to play with the swagger that's made it one of the most feared units in football. Thus, if I'm building a defense from scratch, I want this versatile superstar calling the shots in the back end.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.