The top 10 safeties in NFL history

Profile Picture: Ashley Anderson

October 26th, 2020

As the last line of defense between the opposing team and the end zone, NFL safeties must possess a remarkable combination of speed, strength, field vision, and football IQ.

In honor of those who best exuded such versatility, we ranked the top 10 safeties in NFL history, based on statistics, Pro Bowl appearances, Super Bowl titles, and overall team impact.

10. Darren Woodson

Team: Cowboys 1992-2004
Pro Bowl honors: 5
Super Bowl titles: 3

Darren Woodson’s 6-foot-1, 219-pound frame and quickness made him one of the most versatile safeties in NFL history.

As a member of the Cowboys, he served as a quiet leader on defense and helped Dallas win three Super Bowl championships, alongside Emmitt Smith, Troy Aikman, and Michael Irvin.

When he retired in 2004, because of a back injury, Woodson ranked first in Cowboys history for tackles (1,350 tackles). He also registered 23 interceptions and 11 sacks over 12 pro seasons.

9. LeRoy Butler

Team: Packers 1990-2001
Pro Bowl honors: 4
Super Bowl titles: 1

In 12 seasons with Green Bay, LeRoy Butler recorded 889 tackles, 10 fumble recoveries, three defensive touchdowns, and became the first defensive back to register 20 sacks and 20 interceptions.

In Green Bay’s Super Bowl-winning season, he played a major factor on defense, as he piled up 65 tackles, 6 1/2 sacks, two fumble recoveries, and five interceptions for 149 return yards and a touchdown.

Article Image

Rodney Harrison of the New England Patriots. (Photo by Icon Sportswire)

8. Rodney Harrison

Teams: Chargers 1994-2002, Patriots 2003-2008
Pro Bowl honors: 2
Super Bowl titles: 2

The first player to record 30 sacks and 30 interceptions in his career, Rodney Harrison made a significant impact on the Chargers and Patriots defenses as a hard-hitting safety.

In 1997, Harrison became the first player to score touchdowns on an interception return, fumble return, and kickoff return in the same season, and his 30 1/2 sacks are a record for a defensive back.

Harrison reached the Super Bowl four times (once with the Chargers) and won a pair of titles with the Patriots. His 34 Super Bowl tackles are the most by any player.

7. Brian Dawkins

Teams: Eagles 1996-2008, Broncos 2009-2011
Pro Bowl honors: 9
Super Bowl titles: 0

Brian Dawkins fell to the Patriots in his only Super Bowl appearance (2004), but he eventually earned a title as an Eagles team executive during the 2017 season.

Although he failed to snag a Super Bowl ring as a player, Dawkins still made history as one the most dominant safeties in the league. He was named to nine Pro Bowls and was first-team All-Pro four times.

Across 16 seasons, Dawkins racked up 1,131 tackles, 26 sacks, 37 interceptions, and 36 forced fumbles. In 2002, he became the first player in NFL history to record a sack, interception, fumble recovery, and a touchdown reception in a single game.

6. Willie Wood

Teams: Packers 1960-1971
Pro Bowl honors: 8
Super Bowl titles: 2 (plus 3 NFL championships)

During his 12-year career, Willie Wood hauled in 48 interceptions for 699 return yards, scored two defensive touchdowns, and made a crucial grab in Super Bowl I, when he intercepted a pass by Len Dawson and ran it 50 yards to set up an easy Packers score.

A teammate of Emlen Tunnell early in his career, Wood learned from another great on our list, on the way to eight Pro Bowl nominations, including seven straight from 1964-1970.

In addition to his skill, Wood was a consistent player who made 154 consecutive starts as a safety, an NFL record.

5. Paul Krause

Teams: Redskins 1964-1967, Vikings 1968-1979
Pro Bowl honors: 8
Super Bowl titles: 0

The all-time record holder for interceptions (81), Paul Krause made his presence known from the start of his NFL career, when he led the league in interceptions (12) as a rookie.

An eight-time Pro Bowler, Krause played in four Super Bowls with Minnesota but lost each one. He recorded an interception in Super Bowl IV and a fumble recovery in Super Bowl IX.

Over a 16-year career, Krause missed just two games and returned his 81 interceptions for 1,185 yards (seventh in NFL history).

4. Ken Houston

Teams: Oilers 1967-1972, Redskins 1973-1980
Pro Bowl honors: 12
Super Bowl titles: 0

Ken Houston never won a Super Bowl, but he holds the record for Pro Bowl honors (12) by a defensive back. He earned a nomination every year he played, with the exception of his first and final seasons.

In 1971, he set an NFL season record with five touchdown returns (four interceptions and one fumble) that stood until 2006, when Devin Hester achieved six return touchdowns.

Through 196 games, Houston recorded 898 return yards and nine touchdowns on 49 interceptions, in addition to 21 fumble recoveries for 116 yards and a score.  

3. Emlen Tunnell

Teams: Giants 1948-1958, Packers 1959-1961
Pro Bowl honors: 9
Super Bowl titles: 0 (2 NFL championships)

Emlen Tunnell set the standard for excellence at safety. The first black player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Tunnell won NFL championships with the Giants (1956) and Packers (1961).

Tunnell intercepted at least six passes in each of his first 10 seasons. His 79 interceptions rank second in league history, while his 1,282 interception return yards rank fifth.

2. Ronnie Lott

Teams: 49ers 1981-1990, 1995; Raiders 1991-1992; Jets 1993-1994; Chiefs 1995
Pro Bowl honors: 10
Super Bowl titles: 4

Hall of Fame defensive back Ronnie Lott spent most of his career in San Francisco, where he won four Super Bowls (1981, 1984, 1988, 1989) and eight division titles.

Considered one of the NFL’s hardest-hitting safeties, Lott racked up 1,146 tackles, 16 forced fumbles, 8 1/2 sacks, and led the league in interceptions twice (10 in 1986 and eight in 1991) over 14 seasons. He also reeled in nine playoff interceptions (tied for the most in NFL history), and his 63 interceptions are tied for eighth.

Following the 1985 season, Lott infamously had his left pinky finger amputated, after it was crushed while he tackled running back Timmy Newsome. Lott opted for amputation, as opposed to bone graft surgery — which required longer recovery time — so he could start the 1986 season.

His physicality, competitiveness, and football IQ instilled fear in opposing offenses and helped Lott earn first-team All-Pro selections eight times and 10 Pro Bowl nominations.

Article Image

Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed. (Photo by Rich Kane/Icon Sportswire)

1. Ed Reed

Teams: Ravens 2002-2012, Texans 2013, Jets 2013
Pro Bowl honors: 9
Super Bowl titles: 1

The only player who could beat Lott for greatest safety of all time is a man known to frustrate arguably the greatest quarterback of all time, Tom Brady.

According to Patriots head coach Bill Belichick, when playing against Ed Reed, he and Brady agreed, “You've got to know where Ed Reed is on the field every time the ball is snapped.”

If you didn’t know where Reed was on the field, it would cost you. The nine-time Pro Bowler and five-time first-team All-Pro intercepted 64 passes (seventh-most in NFL history) and set the record for interception return yards (1,590). In 2004, 2008, and 2010, he ranked first in interceptions, and he recorded nine defensive touchdowns.

The Hall of Famer is also the first to return an interception, punt, blocked punt, and fumble for a score. He earned Defensive Player of the Year in 2004 and a Super Bowl with the Ravens in 2013.