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The 50 Greatest Defensive Backs in NFL History (Revised and Updated, 2017 edition)

Thursday, March 1, 2012


My football lists are the least useful of all of my lists, but they're also the most read, so as I'm now updating after the 2017 season (for the all time positional lists, it's been awhile since the prior update) I'm digging in pretty deeply.  I'm an old head so I've seen decades of football, and I like analytics, so there's a lot going into the soup.  Three threshold requirements - for those who played after the 50's at least 90 Approximate Value (sorry Lester Hayes) at least 100 games played, a ratio of at least .5AV/game.

Only the team most representative is listed with each player.  





50. John Lynch (1993-07, Bucs)
-Lynch gets the nod over fellow safeties Atwater/Lake/Dennis Smith/Darren Woodson given an AV advantage. Lynch had two career playoff picks.


49. Darren Sharper (1997-10, Packers)
-Similar NFL career to Lynch, they've subsequently diverged. Sharper was a little more valuable per game than Lynch, had more top end seasons, and added a couple of playoff sacks to two playoff picks.

48. LeRoy Butler (1990-01, Packers)
-Sharper's teammate slides in just ahead, they, 're essentially the same, Sharper a little better overall, Butler a little better per game, both had those 14 playoff appearances as part of those strong Packer teams in the 90s.

47. Eddie Meador (1959-70 Rams)
-Spent the first half of his career at corner, which works in his favor in the comparison to other safeties, he had less overall value than Lynch/Sharper/Butler but more per game value

46. Larry Wilson (1960-72 Cardinals)
-Back to back safeties from the 60s, Wilson spent entire career in St Louis, he's got the most per game value of anyone so far, never played in a playoff game.  

45. Richie Petitbon (1959-72 Bears)
-A third straight 60s safety, Petitbon had a tick more overall value than Wilson, and in 3 career playoff games had two picks and two fumble recoveries.  

44. Gary Fencik (1976-87  Bears)
-Career Bear, not long after Petitbon left the Chicago secondary, Fencik joined.  Fencik had two postseason picks and his role with the '85 Bear defense slots him here.

43. Erich Barnes (1958-71, Browns)
-First corner on the list, judging the relative merits of safeties vs corners is imprecise, but this is obviously the more important of the two roles.

42. Pat Fischer (1961-77, Redskins)
-Similar to Barnes, but a little more overall value.  

41. Cliff Harris (1970-9 Cowboys)
-Back to the safeties, less overall value than anyone in the top 50, but the postseason record really shines, 21 playoff appearances with those 70s Cowboys, 6 picks and 4 fumble recoveries.  Really stepped up when the lights were bright.  

40. Donnie Shell (1974-87, Steelers)
-More career value than anyone so far and he adds those 19 playoff games with the Steel Curtain.

39. Jake Scott (1970-8, Dolphins)
-Second least overall value of anyone in the top 50, but more per game value than anyone we'll see until the top 15 and added 5 playoff picks.  

38. Roger Wehrli (1969-82, Cardinals)
-Steady starter at right corner in St Louis for a decade.

37. Everson Walls (1981-93, Cowboys)
-Walls takes Wehrli's regular season career and adds 4 picks in 10 career postseason games.

36. Dick LeBeau (1959-72, Lions)
-Career Lion, just a tick better overall and per game than Wehrli/Walls.

35. Sam Madison (1997-08 Dolphins)
-Madison's got LeBeau's profile plus an additional ten playoff games.

34. Troy Vincent (1992-06 Eagles)
-Vincent's got more career value, less per game than the corners who have just gone, had 4 picks in 14 playoff games.

33. Ken Houston (1967-80, Redskins)
-Back to safety, most overall value of anyone on the list so far, Houston had 8 really strong NFL seasons, that's double John Lynch, for example.  

32. Brian Dawkins (1996-11, Eagles)
-Zips by Houston as the player with the most overall value on the list so far and had a good postseason career, 4 picks in 18 playoff games.  

31. Louis Wright (1975-86, Broncos)
-Over a decade as Denver's starting left corner, more per game value than any corner so far.  

30. Ty Law (1995-09, Patriots)
-Law's corner profile is really aided by the 6 picks in 13 career playoff games and the 3 Super Bowl wins.  

29. Lemar Parrish (1970-82, Bengals)
-Just about the same career value as Law, but solidly better per game (albeit without the gaudy playoff record)

28. Johnny Robinson (1960-71, Chiefs)
-Another safety, Robinson has less career value than the Houston/Dawkins group but better per game, Robinson had 4 picks in 8 career playoff games.  

27. Emlen Tunnell (1948-61, Giants)
-9 time Pro Bowl, 4 time first team All-Pro, our first player from the 50s on the list.  

26. Cornell Green (1962-74, Cowboys)
-Green's big years were at corner, but he spent the first half of the 70s as a Cowboy safety, Green's got more career value and more per game value than any corner on the list so far and he added 15 playoff appearances.  

That's the first half.  We start the top 25 with a run of corners, each setting a new mark for career value at the position.  

25. Ken Riley (1969-83, Bengals)
-The Bengals right corner for 15 years, more career value than any corner so far, three picks in his 7 postseason games.  

24. Eric Allen (1988-01, Eagles)
-Just gets by Riley for career value, had more good seasons than Riley, and had 4 picks in his 9 playoff games. 

23. Aeneas Williams (1991-04, Cardinals)
-Just gets by Allen for career value, Williams started for the Cardinals for 14 years and had six picks in six career playoff games.  7 good seasons for Williams.

22. Willie Wood (1960-71, Packers)
-Back to the safeties, Wood is Tunnell with more titles, 5 NFL Championships with that 60s Packers juggernaut.

21. Troy Polamalu (2003-14, Steelers)
-More per game value than anyone on the list so far, added 3 picks in 15 career playoff games and won a couple of Super Bowls.

20. Darrelle Revis (2007-17, Jets)
-Revis had the same per game value as Polamalu, but did it from the corner spot.  

19. Jimmy Johnson (1961-76, 49ers)
-16 years a 49er, almost all of them starting at left corner, Johnson's got more career value than anyone on the list so far.

18. Darrell Green (1983-02, Redskins)
-Green then passes Johnson for most career value on the list, he spent two decades with the Redskins and added 6 picks in 18 playoff games.

17. Bobby Boyd (1960-68, Colts)
-Only one guy on the list has more per game value than Boyd, stalwart left corner for the 60s Colts

16. Paul Krause (1964-79, Vikings)
-And it will be awhile before we see anyone with more overall value than Krause, who added 19 playoff games with that great Viking defense, he got 3 picks and scored a touchdown in those games.  

15. Ronde Barber (1997-12, Bucs)
-More career and per game value than Green, Barber gave the Bucs 16 seasons. 

14. Charles Woodson (1998-15, Raiders)
-Mostly a corner, Woodson and Barber have very similar profiles, Woodson played in 17 playoff games.  

13. Mel Blount (1970-83, Steelers)
-Blount has less per game value than anyone still remaining on the list, he added 4 picks in 19 playoff games with that Steeler defense.

12. Yale Lary (1952-64, Lions)
-Most per game value on the list, although he was also an excellent punter which adds to that total, Lary comes in as the 4th best safety of all time.  

11. Mel Renfro (1964-77, Cowboys)
-Renfro split his career between safety and corner and comes in just a tick outside the top ten, he added 4 picks in 21 playoff games.

10. Lem Barney (1967-77, Lions)
A couple of years after Lary left Detroit's secondary, Barney joined, he also draws value from years as a kick returner.

9. Champ Bailey (1999-13, Broncos)
-More career value than Green, a per game value that rivaled Revis, a couple of picks in 11 postseason games, just a terrific profile for Bailey who definitely deserves this slot.  

8. Mike Haynes (1976-89, Patriots)
-I'm a Niner fan, so all of my favorite players are Niners - in the non Niner division, my favorite ever corner was Haynes and that tandem with Hayes was as good as corner play from one team got.  Just put two guys on the edge and lock the other side down.  

7. Ed Reed (2002-13, Ravens)
-Second best safety ever and the best ever who got all of his value from that position.  Reed had 9 picks in 15 playoff games.  9.  

6. Willie Brown (1963-78, Raiders)
-17 playoff games, 7 picks, 3 touchdowns.  More career value than Haynes, more per game value than Bailey.

5. Herb Adderley (1961-72, Packers)
-15 playoff games, 5 picks, Adderly had more per game value than every corner we've seen except Boyd/Barney.  

4. Night Train Lane (1952-64, Lions)
-At 34 years old he was one of the best players in football; he had 14 picks in 12 games as a Rams rookie.  When you're talking about playmakers at corner, there's this guy and the next guy.

3. Deion Sanders (1989-05, Falcons)
-more career value than Brown, more per game value than Haynes (some of it is kick return related) 5 picks in a dozen playoff games.  

2. Ronnie Lott (1981-92, 49ers)
-more career value than anyone so far, more per game value than any safety on the list, Lott played in 20 playoff games, had 9 picks, 2 scores and won 4 Super Bowls, he's closer to being number one on this list than number 3.

1. Rod Woodson (1987-03, Steelers)
-more approximate value than any DB ever and more per game value than Deion (Woodson also had kick return value) plus 20 playoff games.  Woodson's career value+years as a corner slot him above Lott.   











2 comments

DennisVee said...

Brian Dawkins probably deserves a listing... maybe Louis Wright (shutdown CB extraordinaire), Pat Fischer, Kenny Easley (despite shortened career), Deron Cherry...

Hard-hitters John Lynch and Joey Browner are probably in the 50-60 range, just on the outside looking in....

Raiders fans would probably scream for Lester Hayes to be on here.. I could see him somewhere in the 40-50 area, but no higher.

Some of the player listed spent time with other teams:
Steve Atwater was a Jet for a year.
Sam Madison ended his playing days with the Giants.
Ty Law spent time with the Jets, Chiefs and Broncos.
Petitbon ended his career with the Redskins.
Sharper was a Saint.
Aeneas Williams spent his last years with the Rams.
Adderly was a Cowboy too.
Night Train began with the Rams.
Old Man Willie was a young Bronco.
Tunnell finished with Lombardi's Packers.
Lott was a Raider and a Jet.
Deion had brief stints with 49ers, Redskins and Ravens.
Woodson spent time with 49ers and Raiders.

And Darrell Green actually won two SBs with the Redskins ('87 and '91 seasons).

DennisVee said...

I apologize, Jim... I just looked at the 50 QBs list and saw your disclaimer about only listing the teams with which players spent significant and productive time... So please disregard my above listing of additional teams. I did the same thing with the OL list, so please ignore that one as well....

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