Our 2014 rankings move from the front end of the defense to the back-end. Thanks to the dominance of the Seahawks and others, the safety position is getting as much attention now as it ever has, and more stars are emerging each and every year. Here’s this year’s crop of the top ball-hawks in the game:
1) Harrison Smith (MIN) – Smith saw his 2013 campaign cut short due mainly to a turf toe issue that cost him eight games in the middle of the season. Upon his return, we again caught a glimpse of the immense talent he possesses. He’s the prototypical do-everything safety who, barring another injury riddled year, will provide consistent top end numbers to justify his #1 ranking in 2014.
2) Eric Berry (KC) – While Berry’s tackle numbers might never be as high as some of his peers, it’s his ability to provide great contributions in all other categories that lands him this high. He was second among DBs last year with 3.5 sacks and also provided three INT (two returned for TD), 10 pass breakups and eight QB hurries. Not only does Berry provide you with solid week-to-week contributions, but his big play ability means that on any given week he could explode and win you your matchup.
3) Eric Weddle (SD) – Weddle’s 115 tackles was good enough for second among all safeties in 2013. His value has never been interception-reliant as he’s only had one season with more than three picks (seven in 2011). He does however have 58 pass breakups in his 108 career games. The Chargers will ask a lot of Weddle as they break in a new secondary group, but Weddle has shown he is up to the challenge.
4) Earl Thomas (SEA) – As part of arguably the best safety tandem and secondary in football, Thomas had his best season to date in 2013 and helped lead the Seahawks to the Lombardi trophy. Not only did Thomas record 105 tackles, but he also tied a career high with five INT and nine pass breakups. If you’re scratching for any reason to knock him, perhaps you can look at the big money deal Seattle just locked him up with and wonder if that might take a bit of the edge off. Personally, I’m not buying it and think 2014 can be just as good, if not better.
5) T.J. Ward (DEN) – After a monster year in Cleveland, Ward parlayed that into a four-year deal with the defending AFC champs. Ward led all safeties with 8.5 run stuffs last year, three more than any other player, and will look to continue knack for making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. The only thing hanging over Ward’s head right now is a pending misdemeanor charge stemming from a nightclub incident. A small suspension could be handed down from Roger Goodell as a result, sapping some of Ward’s value.
6) Johnathan Cyprien (JAC) – A very impressive rookie season lands Cyprien a top-10 spot on our list. The FIU product and second-round pick notched 103 tackles as well as two forced fumbles and six pass breakups for the Jaguars in 2013. While Cyprien makes his money as a run-stuffer, he showed improved coverage skills in the second half of last season and will no doubt be helped by an improved Jacksonville pass rush in 2014.
7) Morgan Burnett (GB) – Burnett serves as my weekly Yellow Jacket to watch, but comes off a down year in 2013 in which he recorded less than 100 tackles, no sacks, no forced fumbles and no interceptions. Clearly I view last season as an outlier and I expect Burnett to get back to his old self this year. Bringing in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to play alongside him is a nice upgrade that should take some pressure off Burnett and allow him to make some big plays that were lacking in Green Bay this past year.
8) Mark Barron (TB) – After posting back-to-back 88 tackle seasons, Barron looks to make the jump in his third professional campaign. I would expect to see another leap from the 2.0 sacks and two INT he posted last year as he becomes even more of a game-changing safety. I am also suggesting a new nickname for Barron after reports that he was drafted specifically to stop all-world TE Jimmy Graham. Should he make good on this, he will forever be known as the “Graham Cracker”.
9) Kenny Vaccaro (NO) – The only thing that could stop Vaccaro’s strong rookie season was a fractured ankle that cost him the final game of the season. Still, the former Longhorn had 79 tackles, a forced fumble, an interception and eight pass breakups. With Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper making their homes elsewhere, even more will be expected of Vaccaro in 2014, and he’ll deliver in a big way.
10) Tyvon Branch (OAK) – We can’t forget about Branch after he lost almost his entire season to a broken right fibula and played in just two games. Branch is still one of the best tacklers at the safety position and provides a safe floor when he’s healthy. All indications are that he’s ready to go and eager to have a full season paired with Charles Woodson in the Oakland secondary.
11) Barry Church (DAL) – Church is one of the very few bright spots in a Cowboys D that was flat-out awful in 2013. His 135 tackles led the position and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him repeat the feat this year as Dallas has already seen injuries hamper its defense again. Some may see him as a one-year wonder, but he’s going to put up good numbers if for no other reason than… someone in Dallas has to.
12) Bernard Pollard (TEN) – Pollard’s first year in Tennessee was an unequivocal success. He tallied 99 tackles, three INT and 10 pass breakups for the Titans and they were quick to re-up with him on a new deal that keeps Pollard in the Music City. The interceptions might not be there this year, but the tackles definitely will be as he’ll find himself squarely in the run action yet again.
13) Reshad Jones (MIA) – Jones was a player who took a step back last year after an uber-productive 2012. Keeping it in context, he still made 107 tackles, but the lack of big plays severely damaged his overall value. The season before, Jones forced two fumbles, recovered two fumbles and had four INT. Last year, no forced fumbles, no recovered fumbles and just one INT. If he gets back to making those game changing plays, Jones could be one of the better bargains at the position.
14) Antrel Rolle (NYG) – If there’s a candidate for regression at the safety position, Rolle has to be that guy. That’s not necessarily a knock on Rolle as his near-100 tackle level looks just about right, but the other numbers are due to come back to Earth. Rolle recorded six INT in 2013 after just five the previous three seasons combined. He also had 12 pass breakups after tallying only 13 the previous three years. He’ll be a productive player in 2014, just don’t get caught paying the 2013 sticker price.
15) Kam Chancellor (SEA) – The other half of Seattle’s dynamic duo, Chancellor is about as steady as they come at the safety position after three successive seasons of 97, 98 and 99 tackles. He’s alternated between seasons of 3+ INTS and seasons without an INT, but had a monstrous playoff run last year with 35 tackles, two INT and six pass breakups in three games. That might push his value up but it’s also not quite representative of who Chancellor really is.
16) William Moore (ATL) – Last year, Moore recorded 86 tackles, three forced fumbles, three INT, eight pass breakups… and it was considered a down year. Quietly, he has become of the steadiest safeties in the game and he can create the kind of big plays that win you fantasy matchups. He’s another guy who’s on the fringe of Pro-Bowl caliber and, with the additions Atlanta made up front this offseason, this could be the year he breaks through.
17) T.J. McDonald (STL) – If you ask a Rams fan to rank the defensive playmakers on their team, it might be a little while before you come across McDonald’s name. That’s not a slight though as McDonald has all the tools to be a Pro-Bowl safety for years to come. After 53 tackles in 10 games during his rookie year, I think McDonald will be pushing triple-digits this year while tacking on a couple sacks and forced fumbles.
18) Matt Elam (BAL) – Elam had a fairly productive rookie year (77 tackles, one INT, three pass breakups) while taking over the mantle for Canton-bound Ed Reed. But Elam spent most of the season playing out of position at free safety while James Ihedigbo started at strong safety. This year, it looks like Elam will shift back to his favored SS spot where, in his one start there in 2013, he had his best game of the season against the Bears in Week 11. Elam is a popular breakout candidate by many pundits and I would sign off on that myself.
19) Tyrann Mathieu (ARI) – Torn ligaments in his left knee prematurely ended what was a stellar rookie season for Mathieu (68 tackles, 2 INT, 9 pass breakups), who proved to be the third-round steal the Cardinals were hoping he would be. Earlier this week he was placed on the PUP list, but this isn’t a move that overly concerns me. Reports are out there that he could in fact be ready for Week 1 and if so, he provides top-10 value at a discounted price.
20) James Ihedigbo (DET) – Evidence seems to be split when it comes to Ihedigbo. On one hand, he had a big year with the Ravens in 2013 with 101 tackles, two forced fumbles, three INT and 10 pass breakups, good enough to land him in the top-10. However, Ozzie Newsome and the Ravens chose to let him walk and he signed a modest 2-yr, $3.1 million deal to join the Lions and reunite with DC Teryl Austin. I tend to believe that 2013 was a unrepeatable career year for Ihedigbo and he’s another player you won’t want to be stuck overpaying for.
21) LaRon Landry (IND) – The good news for Landry is that he ended up with 87 tackles despite playing only 12 games in 2013. The bad news is that the rest of his stat line is awfully bare. No picks, no sacks, no forced fumbles, and just two pass breakups will lighten your fantasy value in a heartbeat. He’ll be better in 2014, assuming he’s on the field for all 16 games, but there’s nothing game-changing or matchup-changing about what he does. He might not lose you the week, but don’t count on him winning it for you either.
22) Calvin Pryor (NYJ) – The first rookie to make the list, Pryor is expected to make an immediate and hard-hitting contribution to the Jets’ secondary. If you’re looking for an NFL comp, Rex Ryan likens Pryor to Kam Chancellor and is expecting more big plays like the ones he made at Louisville. In three seasons, Pryor forced 9 fumbles and had seven picks as well. He could be not only the most impactful rookie safety, but possibly in the mix for Defensive ROY.
23) Jairus Byrd (NO) – All of a sudden, the Saints enter the conversation when it comes to best safety tandems in the league after they spent big coin on Byrd this offseason. For as good as he is on the field, Byrd just isn’t the same when it comes to fantasy and that’s a shame since dude can straight up ball. He’s averaged about 80 tackles and three INT per season since his nine-pick rookie season in 2009. and is recovering from offseason back surgery. He’ll make the Saints a much better team, and he’ll have a bigger impact for them than he will for your squad.
24) Antoine Bethea (SF) – After eight seasons in Indianapolis, Bethea makes the jump to the west coast and joins a powerhouse San Francisco defense. For all of the talent he possesses, this is going to be a situation of just having too many mouths to feed when it comes to defensive statistics. Bethea has reached the 100-tackle plateau in five of the last six seasons for the Colts, but he’s never been apart of a defense with this much talent up front. With guys like Bowman and Willis in front of him, there simply won’t be the need for Bethea to make as many tackles and his value drops as a result. He’ll post his lowest tackle total since 2007.
25) Donte Whitner (CLE) – With the talent they have on the outside, Cleveland could end up being one of the most fun secondaries to watch in all of football. Whitner replaces the departed T.J. Ward and immediately becomes a leader for a very intriguing Browns’ defense. If Bethea will see diminished chances because of the defense he is joining, it’s not crazy to think Whitner might see a few more tackles come his way now that he’s out of San Francisco. He won’t get back to triple digits, but the low-90s seem reasonable with a few pass breakups and forced fumbles mixed in.
26) Stevie Brown (NYG) – What a blow for the Giants and for Brown himself when he tore his ACL during last year’s preseason and had to miss the entire year, especially coming off the eight INT he had in 2012. Ranking Brown is probably the most difficult task at the position as you just can’t be sure what you’ll be getting from him once he’s back. It’ll take him some time to knock the rust off, but if he looks like his old self early on, he could provide the biggest return on investment among all safeties.
27) Malcolm Jenkins (PHI) – I might be in the minority on Jenkins, but I just can’t seem to get as excited about him as others. He’s known for being a playmaker, yet only has six INT and six forced fumbles in five professional seasons, none of which have included him playing all 16 games. The 2.5 sacks last year were also a fluke and I don’t expect a repeat of that either. I would say that playing in Philly with their high-octane offense should be a boon to his opportunities and production as teams try to keep pace, but Jenkins just left New Orleans so it’s not like he hasn’t had those same opportunities in the past. He’s good, but he won’t be on any of my teams this year.
28) Roman Harper (CAR) – Harper finds himself in a similar situation to Antoine Bethea. Eight years after calling New Orleans home, he now moves within the division to Carolina and gets to team with one of the best defensive fronts in the game. Another safety whose value is tied to his tackle numbers, Harper should see a downturn in his stats as some of those opportunities are gobbled up by Kuechly and Co. in front of him.
29) Troy Polamalu (PIT) – I almost feel bad ranking Polamalu this low after the bounce back season he had last year. As terrific as the five forced fumbles and 11 pass breakups were, they seem completely unattainable this year. Polamalu is 33 years old and doesn’t have the protection in front of him that a rover like him thrives off of. I’ve noted in the past that I’d rather get off the bandwagon a year too early than a year too late. Last year was a year early. This will be the season the Polamalu falls and falls hard.
30) Da’Norris Searcy (BUF) – Searcy looks like the frontrunner to take over the full-time for Jairus Byrd in Buffalo, and if he does, he’s one of the best sleeper targets around. He started the first seven games of last season for the Bills and had 51 tackles, two sacks and four pass breakups. He saw his playing time cut in half the rest of the season once Byrd was completely healthy, but now has a platform to show what he can do. Keep an eye on the position battle and jot Searcy’s name down if he does win the job outright.
Major League Fantasy Football Radio This Sunday the 27th of July from 11:30am-12:30pm EST we will have two guests Jeff Nelson and Ryan Ingram. Jeff is a high school assistant defensive coach & a 2 time Major League Fantasy Football Champion and Ryan is a writer Chase Jacobs will also be a guest co-host along with E.J. Garr. We will be discussing D-Line and running backs. You can listen live or call in and listen at 646.915.8596. Don’t forget that you can download the podcast on I-Tunes or Google play if you have an android. Look for “Sports Palooza Radio”.
Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio This Monday the 28th of July from 1pm-2pm EST we will have two guests Andy Macuga and Dennis St. Pierre. Andy is a high school baseball coach out in California and Dennis is an owner in our leagues and a member of the arbitration committee. You can listen live or call in at 646.915.8596. Both baseball and football shows will be made a podcast after the live airing.