Vikings safety Harrison Smith returns an interception against Jacksonville Jaguars on Aug. 18, 2018, at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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Silverman: Smith, Collins, Berry Are NFL's Top Safeties

Steve Silverman
September 05, 2018 - 10:31 am
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As we close out our review of offensive and defensive positions, we come to what may be the most underrated spot on the field.

Safeties have the full view of plays as they unfold, and while athletic skills and characteristics such as speed and strength always add to the equation, the ability to read the opposing offense and know what is coming next are the keys to excellence.

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This is particularly true of the free safety position. A free safety must have innate football knowledge that comes from knowing your opponent, your teammates and the game situation.

If he can position himself and his teammates in near-perfect alignment on an every-play basis, he has a chance to take over a game.

The best ever were Ronnie Lott, Kenny Easley and Ed Reed. While some of today’s safeties are sharp and brilliant players, it is almost impossible to match that trio in terms of overall impact.

1. Harrison Smith, FS, Minnesota Vikings

Smith has moved to the top of the class, supplanting Earl Thomas and Eric Berry. Smith is a physically skilled player who can deliver some ferocious hits, but the reason he is the top free safety in the league is his ability to anticipate what will happen on the next play and his skill for being in the right place at the right time.

He is a powerful hitter at 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds, and he stayed healthy last year as he started all 16 regular-season games for the Vikings. He tied for second in the NFC with five interceptions, and he has a chance to increase that number this year because he is always around the ball.

Smith spends a lot of time studying film, and that gives him the knowledge of what his opponent likes to do in addition to his finely honed instincts. Smith is one of the keys to Minnesota’s razor-sharp defense.

2. Landon Collins, SS. New York Giants

Collins was at his best in 2016, as the Giants showed remarkable improvement from their defense compared to the previous season. They were unable to sustain that improvement last year, but don’t blame Collins. If New York is going to get back to playoff contention, the Giants are going to have to show considerable life on defense.

 Giants strong safety Landon Collins (21) recovers a fumble against the Raiders on Dec. 4, 2018, at Oakland Coliseum in Oakland, California.
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While Collins is listed as a strong safety and he fills that role extremely well because of his heavy hitting as a 225-pound destroyer, he also understands the nuances of the game and how to position himself and his teammates. Some of the Giants defenders showed a reluctance to follow his lead, and that’s one of the key reasons the New York defense backslid in 2017.

Collins excels in coverage in addition to dominating with his hitting. He was a first-team All-Pro in 2016, and there’s no reason he can’t get back to that form this season.

3. Eric Berry, SS, Kansas City Chiefs

The Chiefs missed Berry badly last season after he went down in Week 1 with a torn Achilles suffered against the Patriots. Berry is one of the dominant leaders on the team, and he is respected throughout the locker room, including with his offensive teammates.

Berry is a great communicator, and not just through his words. After battling back from cancer to earn All-Pro honors in 2016, he showed an indomitable characteristic that few players can ever match.

Berry is a hard worker and still has some years in his prime, as he has not turned 30 yet. Look for Berry to return to his role as one of the team leaders and a key playmaker.

4. Malcolm Jenkins, SS, Philadelphia Eagles

Jenkins is listed as a strong safety, but if you watched the Eagles compete on defense last year, it was clear that Jenkins was also performing many of the duties of a free safety. He is solid against the run and pass, and he excelled at taking on a leadership role both on the field and in the community.

Jenkins is an outstanding communicator, and he is able to make sure his teammates know what is expected of them in order to make plays on a regular basis. He is tough, smart and demanding, but he is also supportive and willing to take players under his wing to show them the correct way of getting the job done.

Jenkins has been to the Pro Bowl in two of the last three seasons.

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5. Micah Hyde, SS, Buffalo Bills

Hyde was a good but not great defensive back while playing for the Green Bay Packers in his first four years in the league. The Packers were not inclined to keep him, but the Bills saw his talent and skill level and made a heavy investment in him by giving him a five-year, $30 million contract.

He paid immediate dividends with the Bills last season and became a Pro Bowl performer. Hyde had five interceptions last season and he also showed off his ability to come through with his ability to pound opposing ball carriers and receivers.

6. Earl Thomas, FS, Seattle Seahawks

7. Keanu Neal, SS, Atlanta Falcons

8. Patrick Chung, SS, New England Patriots

9. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, FS, Green Bay Packers

10. Tyrann Mathieu, SS, Houston Texans

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