The Seahawks finished first in scoring defense for four consecutive seasons, then finished third in 2016 after Thomas broke his leg in December.
Thomas’ impact on the Seahawks’ defense is almost immeasurable, and on his 28th birthday, we try to determine which safety is most valuable to their team.
Earl Thomas, Seahawks
With due respect to Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, and Michael Bennett, Thomas is the fundamental piece of the Seahawks’ defense, allowing his team to run a simple Cover 3 base defense without much variation. Thomas is best known for his ability to play “centerfield,” assisting Sherman and the Seahawks’ second and third cornerbacks if they get beat by their opponents. Few players – if any – can match Thomas’ recovery speed, and the five-time Pro Bowler plays like a heat-seeking missile in the run game. It could be argued that no safety boasts a more complete skill set than Thomas and his contributions to Seattle’s defense will likely earn him a gold jacket in Canton.
Eric Berry, Chiefs
Eric Berry is downright remarkable in every sense of the word, returning to first-team All-Pro status in 2015 and 2016 after beating cancer. Berry is outstanding in coverage and can lock down any receiver that tries him 1-on-1 while overseeing the Chiefs‘ defense. Gifted with outstanding ball skills, most quarterbacks have to pick their poison in determining whether to target Berry or All-Pro cornerback Marcus Peters. Berry’s range is seemingly limitless and he operates as a safety valve for the Chiefs’ defense. With Berry healthy and in the lineup, the Chiefs’ defense goes from good to great and there’s ample reason why he became the highest-paid safety in the NFL on February 28.
Landon Collins, Giants
It may be impossible to have a better sophomore campaign than Landon Collins did in 2016. After a strong rookie season, Collins transformed into one of the most dangerous weapons in the league, wreaking havoc in every facet of the game. Collins recorded 13 pass deflections and five interceptions, and made the defensive play of the year after returning a pick 44 yards to the house against the Rams.
Collins was phenomenal in run support, grading out as the third-best safety in this category, according to Pro Football Focus. The Giants spent $200 million to revamp their defense last summer, but their most valuable contributor is a homegrown product, and Collins could be the NFL’s unequivocally best safety for the next decade.
Tyrann Mathieu, Cardinals
Is Tyrann Mathieu a free safety, slot cornerback or hybrid linebacker? Regardless of his nominal designation, Mathieu’s imprint is all over the Cardinals‘ hyper-aggressive scheme. Mathieu was still recovering from a torn ACL last season and suffered a shoulder injury in December, truncating his impact last year. When healthy, few players can affect a game in as many ways as Mathieu.
Mathieu was a leading contender for Defensive Player of the Year in 2015 before suffering the aforementioned ACL tear. The 24-year-old boasts excellent footwork and can track down nearly any player in the league if they get a jump on him. Although he’s undersized, Mathieu is an outstanding open-field tackler and doesn’t back down from anyone. There’s reason why the Cardinals failed to live up to expectations last year and a fully healthy Mathieu makes them a Super Bowl contender again.
Harrison Smith, Vikings
Harrison Smith continues to elevate his game ahead of his sixth professional season and is the anchor of a young, immensely talented Vikings defense that ranked sixth in points allowed per game in 2016. Earning consecutive Pro Bowl nods, Smith embodies the concept of “wins above replacement” as the foundation of the Vikings’ defense falls apart when he’s out of the lineup.
At this juncture of his career, Smith does everything well, particularly excelling in run support. Although he doesn’t possess the recovery speed that Thomas and Mathieu have, nor the ability to match up against anyone in coverage like Berry, Smith is a devastating open-field tackler with excellent range. Most teams refuse to throw in his direction, as Smith features as an underrated, all-around menace.
Honorable mention: Ha-Ha Clinton Dix (Packers), Devin McCourty (Patriots), Eric Weddle (Ravens), Kam Chancellor (Seahawks), Reshad Jones (Dolphins)
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