The NFL’s best strong 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 free safeties here, and read on for our breakdown of the best strong safeties.
The NFL’s best strong safeties, No. 5: Patrick Chung, Patriots
Chung’s growth since rejoining New England in 2014, following a year with the Eagles, has been striking. He is no longer just a player that the Patriots can get by with; he’s a matchup-winning defender, competent against all manners of pass catchers and in run defense. Last season, Chung even stepped outside and saw some reps as a cornerback when the Patriots were a bit thin there. A few years back, he would have been overwhelmed by all the responsibilities given to him in ‘15. Not anymore. About to turn 29 years old, Chung may be hitting his prime.
The NFL’s best strong safeties, No. 4: Reshad Jones, Dolphins
There have been few defenders the Dolphins would have deemed irreplaceable over the last couple seasons. Jones is right in that mix, alongside Cameron Wake and now Ndamukong Suh. Coming off his first Pro Bowl nod, Jones briefly held out this off-season, despite having two years left on a $30 million contract. Either Miami will float extra cash his way in the coming months or he’ll eventually hit the free-agent market as a highly coveted chip. Jones picked off five passes and racked up a whopping 135 tackles last season, easily tops on the team. He was all over the place last season, a defender whose presence was impossible to ignore as he flew around after the football.
The NFL’s best strong safeties, No. 3: Morgan Burnett, Packers
The striking note about Burnett is not how good he has been but rather how much better, as an all-around player, he has become of late. A full-time starter for the Packers since 2011, Burnett has become an unquestioned leader of that defense and, by increasing his presence vs. the pass, has stepped up as a top NFL safety. Green Bay no longer has to worry about him in coverage, and he’s far from a concern vs. the run—he registered 130 tackles over 15 games in ‘14 and another 68 across 11 games last year. Keeping him on the field for a full season should be a goal, as Burnett has not hit 16 games played since the ‘13 campaign. He and Clinton-Dix have quietly grown into a standout safety duo.
The NFL’s best strong safeties, No. 2: T.J. Ward, Broncos
Had Ward not been banged up during the 2015 regular season and into the playoffs, he might have claimed the top spot on this list. He has been that effective for the Super Bowl champs, just as he was for Cleveland from 2010–13. If it weren’t his size (5’ 10”, 200 lbs.) and value in pass coverage, Ward probably could take on a full-time transition to linebacker. He is incredibly productive vs. the run, plus brings an ability to get after the passer. Just ask Minnesota quarterback Teddy Bridgewater—he was under fire from Ward throughout their Week 4 meeting last year, a performance which earned Ward (two sacks, forced fumble, QB hurry) AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
The NFL’s best strong safeties, No. 1: Kam Chancellor, Seahawks
A holdout—and a rather unproductive one, at that—cut into Chancellor’s 2015 performance. He did not join the team until late September, and the rust was more evident than anyone would have preferred. Even so, the Seahawks’ defense was without question far better with Chancellor in the lineup than without him. Earl Thomas handles the deep middle, with Chancellor bringing the hammer on the second level, serving as essentially an extra linebacker on many of Seattle’s schematic calls. When both are out there together, it’s almost foolish for quarterbacks to test the Seahawks between the hash marks...except for the fact that Richard Sherman is lurking on the outside. Obviously, all of Seattle’s players in the secondary benefit from the presence of elite talent around him, but that does not diminish what Chancellor can do on his own.