The NFL’s best free safeties
“Renaissance” is the wrong word to describe what’s gone on at safety in recent seasons—the free and strong safety positions always have been vital and consistently feature some of the game’s top athletes. But there has been an influx of special talent in the secondary over the past six drafts or so.
Jairus Byrd, Glover Quin and Patrick Chung arrived in 2009, Eric Berry was a top-five selection in ‘10 and the ball has kept right on rolling. The old guard at safety has stayed the course, as well, helping to add depth to star power. Safety is a premier position, even more so in a modern NFL that forces players there to handle wildly varying chores from down to down. Need deep help? Slot coverage? An extra blitzer? A little run defense? All of those abilities must be on a safety’s resume these days (or there at least must be otherworldly potential in one area). On top of their own duties, safeties have to be cornerbacks and linebackers as well. Which players handle those demands the best? We're breaking down the two safety positions in separate lists. Find our picks for the top strong safeties here and read on for our breakdown of the best free safeties.
Just missed the cut
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Packers: He also could qualify as the “Next Big Thing” at safety, as he enters his third NFL season. Clinton-Dix pairs extremely well with Morgan Burnett, another movable part at safety, and he was far more consistent in 2015 than he was in ‘14.
Next big thing
Adrian Amos, Bears: A steal in Round 5 of the 2015 draft, Amos wound up starting all 16 games for a rapidly improving Chicago defense. He is a three-down defender who should only grow as a coverage weapon.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 9: Reggie Nelson, Raiders
Oakland found itself a free-agent bargain in Nelson, whose stock no doubt took a hit due to him turning 33 this coming September. But that chilly reception on the FA market still doesn’t make a ton of sense. He led the league in interceptions last season, for starters, picking off eight passes on the back end of a very good Cincinnati defense. He also remains very willing to step up and help on run plays, refusing to be a bystander in those early-down situations. His game is not as electrifying as a handful of the others on this list, but there are few safeties more reliable than Nelson.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 8: Byron Jones, Cowboys
Placing Jones here is as much about what’s to come as it is about what he accomplished during his rookie season. And the ‘15 first-rounder was excellent in Year One, especially when in coverage. Because the Cowboys had to piece things together at times in the secondary, Jones wound up taking on myriad roles, from deep safety to a man-coverage corner. He failed to record an interception—one of the few knocks on his debut—but displayed a headiness above his years in transitioning from position to position. The plan headed into 2016 is to let him stick at safety, full time. There’s no question he has the range to be sensational there.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 7: Eric Weddle, Ravens
The Ravens, a team dying to find an impact safety presence ever since Ed Reed left following the 2012 season, are about to find out just how valuable Weddle can be. The version of Weddle that wrapped his nine-year run in San Diego was not the same player last season that he had been in the eight prior, with injuries and inefficiency around him hurting the cause. However, even during a bit of a down campaign (zero INTs), Weddle again showed off his elite coverage skills. Pro Football Focus graded him No. 2 against the pass among safeties, trailing only the now-retired Charles Woodson. Weddle also can be a sneaky presence as a pass rusher, getting into the backfield when asked to blitz.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 6: Malcolm Jenkins, Eagles
Jenkins is another member of the elite safety club who A.) recently received a juicy new contract extension (five years, $35 million), and B.) spent a great deal of his time last season covering the slot (47% of his snaps, per Philly.com). Jenkins, like Mathieu, also landed on our countdown of the league’s top slot cornerbacks. The footwork Jenkins showed in sticking to those quick inside receivers also happens to be part of what helps him thrive from a safety alignment. He couples that quickness with the experience gained over nearly 100 career NFL starts to stay a step ahead of the offensive weapons he’s facing. He rightfully took his first Pro Bowl trip a year ago.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 5: Devin McCourty, Patriots
Bill Belichick has shuffled through a long list of players in the secondary, some of them superstars (Darrelle Revis) and others of the diamond-in-the-rough persuasion (Malcolm Butler). The one constant since 2010 has been McCourty, whose value only has grown since the Patriots slid him to safety midway through the ’12 season. As with just about every safety on our list, he has the requisite capabilities to handle a variety of roles. He tends to be at his best, though, when dropping deep in coverage and providing the support New England’s occasionally ragtag collection of cornerbacks needs. Belichick clearly trusts his scheme, hence his revolving door at CB. But McCourty’s development as a safety over the past few seasons is one of the main reasons why that scheme works.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 4: Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals
Pinning a positional designation on Mathieu is foolish—SI’s Doug Farrar just ranked him as the league’s No. 6 slot corner and he actually played more snaps at strong safety last year than he did at free safety. So it doesn’t really matter what he’s called so long as we all recognize his playmaking prowess. Before suffering a season-ending ACL injury last December, Mathieu had 89 tackles, five interceptions and 17 pass breakups to his credit. The Cardinals can trust him to play the deep middle, but he also excels over the slot and in the box. Between Mathieu and Deone Bucannon, Arizona has helped pave the defensive path into the new-look NFL. The need for size and power has been surpassed by agility and versatility. Mathieu has handled everything the NFL has thrown his way.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 3: Eric Berry, Chiefs
Is Berry a free safety? A strong safety? Does it matter? Wherever the Chiefs choose to play him, Berry makes his presence felt, and he should be even more effective in 2016 than he was during a ‘15 All-Pro season that came on the heels of cancer treatment. He spent the ’13 season solidifying himself as a dominant strong safety, but was deemed more of a free safety last season. The Chiefs vary their safety looks quite a bit, rolling three players from the position out more frequently than other teams tend to. Having Berry as an anchor puts them in an advantageous spot. Whether as the deep center fielder or playing underneath with a second safety over the top, Berry is a defender opposing teams must account for on every play.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 2: Harrison Smith, Vikings
If there is a defender whose role and value match that of Earl Thomas’s, Smith might be closest. The Notre Dame product just signed a five-year contract extension worth upwards of $10 million per year, and he deserves every penny of it. Minnesota coach Mike Zimmer asks the world of Smith, in all facets—Smith notched 66 tackles, two picks and 1.5 sacks in 13 games last season. The Vikings love to blitz, especially through the A-gap and doing so requires the utmost confidence in Smith to plug any resulting holes along the second and third levels. Smith is only getting better, too, which means he could surpass Thomas (if he hasn’t already) as the defender 31 other teams wish they had.
The NFL’s best free safeties, No. 1: Earl Thomas, Seahawks
Last season marked the first year since his rookie season (2010) that Thomas did not earn some level of AP All-Pro honor—he was a first-teamer from 2012–14. So, sure, Thomas’s 2015 may not have reached the insanely high bar he set for himself in previous seasons, but he still matched career highs in interceptions (five) and pass breakups (nine). More than that, he remains the standard at his position. Teams that have tried to replicate Seattle’s defensive approach repeatedly have run into the same issue: players like Thomas are almost impossible to find. He has the range to disrupt offenses from sideline to sideline, backed with the instincts to step up inside the hash marks. While Richard Sherman long has been the face of Seattle’s vaunted defense (and ranked No. 1 on our outside cornerbacks list), Thomas is the straw that stirs the drink.