AFC North: Bob Sanders
May, 3, 2011
By James Walker | ESPN.com
ESPN.com IllustrationPittsburgh's Troy Polamalu (43) and Baltimore's Ed Reed (20) were the consensus top picks in the ESPN.com safety Power Rankings.ESPN.com's NFL writers rank the top 10 safeties in the league today. Next week: top 10 owners.
When it comes to rating NFL safeties, there's Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed followed by a huge gap before everyone else.
As expected, the star safeties for the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens dominated ESPN.com's positional Power Rankings this week. No other safety received a vote higher than third place.
But what is surprising is that Polamalu -- the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- became the first player in this year's series to sweep all eight first-place votes. Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots did the same among head coaches.
This should finally put to rest the "Troy Reed" debate that has been raging for years between these two great safeties. According to our panel, there is a clear separation between the two. Reed received all second-place votes to finish with 72 points.
"Polamalu and Reed are the secondary's version of Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. They are the gold standard of safety play," AFC West blogger Bill Williamson said. "While Reed is great, Polamalu is stunning. I've never seen him play and not make a jaw-dropping play."
Both safeties have different styles. But our panel preferred Polamalu's versatility to play closer to the line of scrimmage. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau uses Polamalu all over the field to help defend both the run and the pass.
Reed is more of a ballhawking safety who defends the deep portion of the field. He led the NFL with eight interceptions last season despite missing six games because of offseason hip surgery.
"Taking nothing away from Ed Reed, who is a great player in his own right, but Troy Polamalu is the first guy I think of when I think of safeties," NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas said. "He's been a huge force in Pittsburgh's recent championships. He's just a great all-around player and still in the prime of a career that's going to land him in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot."
Don't fret, Reed supporters. Someone is in your corner.
Earlier this year I interviewed former five-time Pro Bowl safety and current ESPN analyst Darren Woodson, who said he would choose Reed over Polamalu.
"As far as changing the game, I would probably start my defense with Ed Reed, to be honest with you," Woodson explained. "I know I can put him in any situation. I know I can put him on any team, and he will be the free safety in the middle of the field who makes plays on the ball. Now, Troy, it will be a little different. If you put him in a conventional defense, he's probably not going to be the same guy."
The best of the rest: There wasn't much of a consensus after Polamalu and Reed.
Fresh off a big interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLV, Nick Collins of the Green Bay Packers finished third with 56 points. But Collins received votes as high as third and as low as seventh. He was a distant 24 points behind Polamalu and 16 points behind Reed.
Adrian Wilson of the Arizona Cardinals finished fourth, but he drew the widest range of votes among safeties in the top 10. ESPN.com senior writer John Clayton and Bill Williamson ranked Wilson No. 3, and NFC North blogger Kevin Seifert ranked Wilson No. 10.
In the final tally, Kansas City Chiefs upstart Eric Berry was fifth, Michael Griffin of the Tennessee Titans placed sixth and Donte Whitner of the Buffalo Bills finished seventh. New England Patriots safety Brandon Meriweather was eighth, Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants was ninth and the Indianapolis Colts' Antoine Bethea and LaRon Landry of the Washington Redskins tied for 10th.
"There is a pretty wide gap for sure after the top two," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Nick Collins would be my third safety, but the gap is pretty large. I think it is because Troy and Reed are just so good."
Seventeen safeties received votes, which was the second-highest total to date in our Power Rankings. Last month, 23 cornerbacks received votes for our top 10.
In addition, every voter had at least one player on his ballot who failed to make the cut. For example, NFC West blogger Mike Sando and I both voted for longtime St. Louis Rams safety and current Redskin Oshiomogho Atogwe, who finished 14th.
"I really struggled putting together the list after Polamalu and Reed," Sando said. "I kept shuffling around names and eliminating various guys, only to revive them out of necessity. This wasn't a list to feel good about."
What about Bob? It was not long ago when Bob Sanders was mentioned in the same sentence as Reed and Polamalu. When healthy, Sanders was a game-changing safety and helped lead the Indianapolis Colts to a Super Bowl title after the 2006 season.
But for the past three seasons, Sanders has been injured and spent more time off the field than on it. The Colts cut Sanders, and he was picked up this offseason by the San Diego Chargers.
It's dramatic how fast and how far Sanders has fallen out of the conversation. He didn't receive a single vote from our panel.
"Sanders just hasn't played," AFC South blogger Paul Kuharsky explained. "In his prime and healthy, he's fantastic. But who knows if we will see that again. He's played nine games in the last three years. There is no reason to even consider him for a list like this at this point."
The next generation: Polamalu (30) and Reed (32) will not play forever. Therefore, someone needs to step up as the next great safety to carry the torch Polamalu and Reed will leave behind.
Berry, 22, is the most likely candidate. The 2010 first-round pick was voted in the top five after helping lead the Chiefs to the postseason. Berry recorded 92 tackles, two sacks and four interceptions his rookie season.
"I think it's safe to project that Berry will be the premier safety in the NFL in the second half of this decade," Bill Williamson said. "He became the signature player on a surprise playoff team as a rookie. Soon, he will be the face of a rising organization."
Other up-and-coming candidates include Whitner (25), Bethea (26) and Landry (26). Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, 21, also garnered votes from two panelists.
"Eric Berry and Earl Thomas should lead the next wave of top safeties," Sando said. "Berry's peers voted him among the top 100 players in the game for 2011, but I think it's premature to say Berry or any other second-year player is going to become the next Polamalu or Reed. Those guys have set such a high standard."