With "The Top 100: Players of 2011" winding down, it got us thinking: Who are the greatest players of the new millennium, the Y2K era? Since 2000, broad developments in NFL strategy have taken place, as well as the specialization of the players who fit into these new schemes. So who has thrived most in the league's ever-evolving environment?
Today, Jason La Canfora and Elliot Harrison debate the best safety. Got an opinion of your own? Sound off in the comments section below.
La Canfora: A case for Ed Reed
Ed Reed just might be the best safety to ever play the game. If not, then call him the greatest ball hawk since Dick "Night Train" Lane.
But without a doubt Reed is the best safety of this era.
Reed eclipses him, by a large margin, in interceptions, turnovers caused and touchdowns. He changes the entire nature of the game and the entire way offenses approach the Ravens. This is a guy who out-wits and out-smarts Peyton Manning. This is a guy who, on the rare occasions he's still asked to take part in the return game, can take it to the house at any moment.
Sure, Reed gambles and occasionally loses -- but so does Polamalu. Reed just has more success at it than arguably anyone who ever played. Last year, coming off major hip surgery, he had eight interceptions in 10 games. Come on, who does that?
Don't think Reed hits as hard as he used to? Turn on the tape of the playoff game at Kansas City and watch him deliver a hit that pretty much shuttered the Chiefs' attack the rest of the day.
But don't take my word for it. When I was in studio recently for "NFL Total Access," Warren Sapp and Brian Baldinger were debating this very topic. Sapp took Reed's side. Hall of Famer Rod Woodson, a remarkable corner and safety and one of the 25 to 50 greatest players of all-time in my opinion, text messaged Fran Charles at the end of the show.
His vote: Reed, without a doubt. No question about it.
That's plenty good to me.
Players in the discussion: Polamalu, Darren Sharper
Great but ... don't belong: John Lynch, Rodney Harrison
Guy nobody talks about: Sean Taylor
Harrison: A case for Troy Polamalu
How does one begin to describe Polamalu's game?
Has there ever been a more unique player in NFL history? In deciding the best safety of this era, it's difficult to overlook Reed, and even Darren Sharper. They are both classic, ball-hawking safeties. Reed gets more publicity and is a certifiable Hall of Famer, while Sharper has 63 career interceptions that will be very tough for Hall of Fame voters to ignore.
That said, Polamalu has been the biggest overall playmaker from the safety position since Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott. I'm talking about a complete game, not just interceptions and pass deflections -- but sacks, tackles for a loss and, most of all, clutch plays. His sack of Joe Flacco in Baltimore last season won that game. It was classic Polamalu, leaving his feet to make sure he hit the Ravens' quarterback before he could throw.
Still, what has made Polamalu so special is not any one play; it's a confluence of things. Pittsburgh's defense has allowed the fewest points in the league three times since Polamalu became a starter in 2004. In 2007, the Steelers finished second; in 2005, third. Just to get this straight, since Polamalu's arrival seven seasons ago the Steelers have finished in the top three in points allowed five times, he's started three Super Bowls, and is a six-time Pro Bowl selection.
What resonates even stronger is what Pittsburgh hasn't accomplished when he's been out with an injury. The difference between having Polamalu in or out of the lineup is staggering, especially the last two seasons.
Win-Loss: With: 17-5 ... Without: 6-7
Points per game allowed: With: 15.9 ... Without: 21.5
Interceptions: With: 28 ... Without: 6
What better compliment can you give a player, other than saying he is the difference between winning and losing?