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Best NFL Safeties of All Time: Ronnie Lott, Ed Reed Headline Top 10

Who are the best NFL safeties of all time? We offer our top 10, which include legendary defenders Ronnie Lott, Ed Reed, and Brian Dawkins.

Few players are asked to do more on a football field than safeties, especially in today’s NFL. A truly great safety can line up anywhere in the secondary and also play close to the line of scrimmage. They must be versatile, smart, and athletic. But who are the best NFL safeties of all time?

We ranked the top 10, along with six honorable mentions.

10 Best NFL Safeties of All Time

Honorable mentions: Paul Krause, John Lynch, Rodney Harrison, Johnny Robinson, Yale Lary, Jack Christiansen

10) Willie Wood

A Green Bay Packers legend, Willie Wood won five NFL championships and two Super Bowls. He also was an eight-time Pro Bowler and four-time first-team All-Pro.

Wood finished his amazing career with 48 interceptions, 16 fumble recoveries, and two defensive touchdowns.

9) Emlen Tunnell

Many old-time football fans have Emlen Tunnell atop their all-time safeties list. However, we have the Hall of Famer at No. 9, which probably will be a polarizing decision.

Regardless, Tunnell is a legendary safety. Across 14 seasons for the New York Giants and Packers, Tunnell intercepted a then-record 79 passes and was the best safety of the 1950s. He was also the first Black player signed by the Giants and the first Black player inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Tunnell, a two-time NFL champion, finished his career with nine Pro Bowl nods and four first-team All-Pro selections.

8) Donnie Shell

One of the best players on the famous “Steel Curtain” Pittsburgh Steelers defense, Donnie Shell made five consecutive Pro Bowls and earned three first-team All-Pro selections. The four-time Super Bowl champion was great in coverage but also could line up in the box as a de facto linebacker.

Shell racked up 51 interceptions, 19 forced fumbles, and 19 fumble recoveries during his Hall of Fame career.

7) Cliff Harris

A key member of the 1970s Dallas Cowboys dynasty, Cliff Harris is one of the best NFL safeties of all time.

His aggressive, hard-hitting playstyle earned him the nickname “Captain Crash” — which is a great nickname. Harris, a six-time Pro Bowler, racked up 29 interceptions and 18 fumble recoveries during his illustrious 10-year career.

6) Larry Wilson

Kids today don’t understand the greatness of Larry Wilson.

Arguably the best safety of the 1960s, Wilson was a dominant force across 13 seasons for the then-St. Louis Cardinals. He was a five-time first-team All-Pro and an eight-time Pro Bowler. Wilson also intercepted a pass in seven consecutive games.

Famous for his success on safety blitzes, Wilson finished his career with 21 sacks to go along with 52 interceptions for five touchdowns.

5) Brian Dawkins

Brian Dawkins wasn’t the biggest or most athletic safety of his era, but he more than made up for it with pure talent, instincts, and fiery competitiveness.

A Philadelphia Eagles legend, Dawkins earned seven Pro Bowl nods during his 13 years in Philly. His three-year epilogue with the Denver Broncos was also impressive, as Dawkins earned two Pro Bowl selections.

Dawkins finished his career with 37 interceptions, 36 forced fumbles, 26 sacks, and 1,147 tackles.

4) Troy Polamalu

In his prime, the quiet and stoic Troy Polamalu was one of the most feared and intimidating defenders in the NFL.

He spent his entire 12-year career with the Steelers, winning two Super Bowls and earning four first-team All-Pro nods. Polamalu finished his career with 32 interceptions, five defensive touchdowns, and 107 pass breakups. He was an awesome player.

3) Ken Houston

Ken Houston was the best safety of the 1970s.

The 12-time Pro Bowler played for the Houston Oilers from 1967 through 1972 before spending his final eight seasons in Washington. Pairing elite instincts with incredible athleticism, Houston finished his career with 12 total touchdowns, including one as a punt returner.

Houston is one of the best all-around safeties in NFL history and a deserving member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

2) Ed Reed

Some believe Ed Reed is the best NFL safety of all time, and you certainly could make that case. But he lands at No. 2 on our list.

The Baltimore Ravens legend was the ultimate ball hawk. He racked up 64 interceptions — leading the NFL three times — and posted a staggering 1,590 interception return yards for seven touchdowns. Reed was ridiculous at his peak, and NFL offenses always had to game plan for him.

Reed earned five first-team All-Pro selections and one NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award.

1) Ronnie Lott

How good was the beginning of the 1981 NFL Draft?

With the No. 2 pick, the New York Giants selected Lawrence Taylor, the best linebacker of all time. Shortly afterward, at No. 8, the San Francisco Giants selected Ronnie Lott, the best safety in NFL history.

Lott played cornerback for the first four seasons of his career and made the Pro Bowl each year. He then transitioned to safety — and the rest is history.

When the dust settled, Lott racked up 10 Pro Bowl nods, six first-team All-Pro selections, four Super Bowl titles, and nine playoff interceptions. He’s one of the greatest defensive players in football history.