By Steve Silverman
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If you are going to win in the NFL, you must have at least one great safety to help your team get there. It really helps to have two of them.
Coming from the back line of the defense, having an explosive and athletic safety can be a game-changer for any team. But the overall talent at the position is far more dependent on what the player has between his ears rather than what he has between his shoulder pads.
It’s all about instincts and intelligence. A top-level safety – particularly a free safety – has to understand what the opponent is trying to accomplish and which weapons he is using in order to get there. He also has to know all of his own team’s strengths and weaknesses.
Once a safety understands all the nuances of the game, his instincts can take over, and he can almost dictate the pace of the game.
Here’s a look at the top safeties heading into the 2016 season.
1. Earl Thomas, Seattle Seahawks
Thomas is one of the biggest hitters in the league at his position, but it is his understanding of the position that makes him so dangerous on the field. He is surrounded by a bunch of nasty and vicious hitters on the Seattle defense, and that allows him to play with reckless abandon and a surgeon’s precision. Thomas is a powerful hitter despite his lack of height at 5-foot-10 (and 207 pounds), and he also excels in coverage. The combination of Thomas and middle linebacker Bobby Wagner gives the Seahawks a formidable air on defense.
2. Eric Berry, Kansas City Chiefs
While Thomas is a bit more physical than Berry, the Chiefs have a special leader in Berry who battled back from cancer to have an All-Pro season in 2015. He is the rallying point of the Chiefs’ defense, and he regularly helps his teammates know their assignments and figure out what has to be done on the fly. Berry can deliver a hit, cover and make plays on the ball, but it is his courage and leadership that make him special.
3. Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
One of the most important players on Matt Patricia’s defense because of his tremendous range and hitting ability. The 29-year-old is clearly in the prime of his career, and he is one of the top two cover men at his position in the league. When he signed his five-year, $47.5 million contract prior to the 2015 season, Bill Belichick made the decision to keep McCourty and let Darelle Revis walk. That’s all anyone needs to know.
4. Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals
Don’t be surprised if Mathieu moves up to the top of this list by the time the season ends. Mathieu has excellent physical skills, but it is his instincts for the position that separate him from nearly everyone else. Every time Mathieu is on the field, he plays with an edge that tells opponents “you can’t beat me.” Mathieu can win the physical battle, and he is an extremely skilled cover man. He appears to have overcome the ACL injury suffered in Week 15 last year, and expect head coach Bruce Arians to turn him loose against the Patriots in Week 1.
5. Malcolm Jenkins, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles don’t appear to have a lot going for them at the start of the 2016 season, but Jenkins has turned into one of their most effective players since coming to the Eagles in 2014. He is a solid run defender and even better against the pass, but his greatest strength comes as a leader for a team that badly needs them.
6. Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
Smith is a huge man who can disrupt opposing offenses with his ability to deliver game-changing hits. Not only is he big and strong at 6-foot-2, 214 pounds, he moves extremely well and seems to understand what his opponents are doing and where they will be on each play. Injuries have been a frequent problem – both of a serious and nagging variety – but he is among the best in the league as long as he can stay on the field.
7. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Green Bay Packers
Unlike the Seahawks’ Thomas, Clinton-Dix does not get a ton of support from his front seven, and that makes his job much harder. Clinton-Dix is a do-it-all type who can turn a game around with his hitting ability, coverage techniques and ability to rush the passer. He had three sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble last season. Look for those numbers to increase across the board in 2016.
8. T.J. Ward, Denver Broncos
Ward established himself as a policeman on the Denver defense during the regular season because he is a huge hitter who loves to punish opponents. However, he upgraded his overall status with his play in the postseason. He had an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery during the Broncos’ Super Bowl run, and he regularly was in a position to make game-changing plays.
9. Eric Weddle, Baltimore Ravens
The glue that held the San Diego defense together for years, Weddle signed with the Ravens as a free agent in the offseason. This could be a perfect match because Baltimore coach John Harbaugh clearly recognizes his overall talent, and he is one of the best coaches in the league when it comes to devising a specific plan to highlight a player’s skills. Weddle left the Chargers as an angry man, and he will be playing to prove something on an every-game basis this year.
10. Patrick Chung, New England Patriots
Chung is a huge hitter who is more than adequate when it comes to coverage. Chung has a great understanding of all game situations, and he is often at his best when the game is on the line in the fourth quarter. Chung had 85 tackles last season, and he is the perfect complement to McCourty in the New England secondary.
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