The Canton Worthy: Defensive Backs
After looking at head coaches on Wednesday and then linemen on both sides of the ball yesterday, I wrap up the week (but not the series) looking at a group of defensive backs up for the NFL’s Hall of Fame. Three of these men played the bulk of their careers as free safeties, while the other two were corners. Interestingly, the last three all played together in 2009 for the Denver Broncos*, and four out of five of these players played in Denver at some point in their careers, while three out of five played for the Jets–but never together.
*That Broncos squad, Josh McDaniels’ first, went 8-8 while the defense ranked third against the pass.
For my comparisons throughout this series, I’ve been looking at the Hall of Fame list posted on pro-football-reference.com. According to the last, there is no distinction between safeties or cornerbacks. Instead, PFR refers to all of those players as “defensive backs.” So, instead of breaking these five players down by position like I did yesterday with guards and tackles, I’ll be comparing them to fellow defensive backs.
However, I will be comparing them to defensive backs of a certain era–from 1989 until 2013, the former because that’s the earliest any of these five began his career, and 2013 because that’s the last year that any of these guys played.
Steve Atwater, Free Safety: Denver Broncos, 1989-1998 & New York Jets, 1999
Atwater, known for his bone-crushing hits over the middle, went 20th overall to the Broncos in the 1989 draft out of Arkansas. Over the next decade, he started at least 14 games every season. He picked off 24 passes, forced five fumbles, recovered eight fumbles and collected 1,125 total tackles. He made All-Pro in 1991 and 1992 while reaching eight Pro Bowls in a span of nine years. He was one of the team’s defensive leaders when Denver won back-to-back Super Bowls in the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
John Lynch, Strong Safety/Free Safety: Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 1993-2003 & Denver Broncos, 2004-2007
Over the years in Tampa Bay, John Lynch led a revolution that helped transform the Bucs from the Yuks into a Super Bowl winner. The Stanford product went in the third round of the 1993 draft to Tampa, where he’d patrol the center of the field for the following 11 seasons. In that time, he went to five Pro Bowls, made All-Pro twice, and won Super Bowl XXXVII. Lynch later left for Denver, where he made another four Pro Bowls before retiring. In the end, that’s nine Pro Bowls, two All-Pro selections, seven trips to the playoffs and one championship.
Ty Law, Cornerback: New England Patriots, 1995-2004; New York Jets, 2005, 2008; Kansas City Chiefs, 2006-2007; Denver Broncos, 2009
Ty Law was another first round pick, going No. 23 to the Patriots out of Michigan in 1995. He was part of the team that lost Super Bowl XXXI to the Packers, but then he collected three Super Bowl rings at the start of the Brady-Belichick Dynasty. By the time he retired as a member of the Broncos, he’d made five Pro Bowls (four with the Patriots, one with the Jets) and had been named All-Pro twice. He finished his career with 53 interceptions, seven of which he returned for touchdowns, which is the 11th most all-time.
Champ Bailey, Cornerback: Washington Redskins, 1999-2003 & Denver Broncos, 2004-2013
Before getting dealt to the Broncos for running back Clinton Portis prior to the start of the 2004 season, Champ Bailey had already intercepted 18 passes and collected 312 total tackles while getting voted into four Pro Bowls as a five-year member of the Redskins. Over the next 10 seasons in Denver, he’d be named All-Pro three times while making another eight Pro Bowls. He led the league in interceptions with 10 in 2006 and finished his career with 52.
Ed Reed, Free Safety: Baltimore Ravens, 2002-2012; New York Jets, 2013; Houston Texans, 2013
The 24th overall pick out of Miami (Fla.) in the 2002 draft, Reed played 11 years for the Ravens before splitting his final season between the Jets and Texans. In his first decade-plus in Baltimore, Reed was named the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, won one Super Bowl, made nine Pro Bowls and was elected All-Pro five times. Throughout his 12-year career, Reed intercepted 64 passes, which is seventh all-time. His 1,590 interception return yards is the most all-time.
Which of the five of Atwater, Lynch, Law, Bailey and Reed gets into the Hall of Fame? Remember two things: 1) Only a maximum of five finalists can be inducted in a given year, and 2) I’ve already selected center Kevin Mawae and guard Alan Faneca. I have at most three remaining spots between these five and three offensive playmakers I’ve yet to discuss.
Based on those factors, I believe only one defensive back has a shot at making it into Canton this season. Right off the bat I’m going to eliminate three of them: Steve Atwater, John Lynch and Ty Law. Each of those three defensive backs previously had shots to make it, yet failed. This year, they face even tougher competition with first-time nominees Champ Bailey and Ed Reed.
And it’s at those two that I’m going to take a closer look.
There are 26 defensive backs in the Hall of Fame. Of those 26, five retired after 1999: the ageless Darrell Green, Rod Woodson, Deion “Primetime” Sanders, Aeneas Williams and Brian Dawkins.
As far as longevity, both Bailey and Reed stack up with those five. Bailey made more Pro Bowls than any of those players, while Reed made more than all but Woodson. Only Woodson and Sanders made more All-Pros than Reed, while Bailey only edges out Green in that category. Regarding interceptions, only Woodson’s 71 overshadow Reed’s 64. Meanwhile, Bailey’s 52 interceptions only beats Dawkins’ 37.
Here’s what I’m getting at: Bailey and Reed both compare very well to the five defensive back members of the Hall of Fame from around their era. Much like with the discussion I had yesterday about guards Alan Faneca and Steve Hutchinson, though, the two will be compared against each other as their careers overlapped from 2002-2013.
Starting with longevity, Bailey gets the edge as he started longer at his position. Bailey also has a 12-9 edge regarding Pro Bowls. But, in less time as a starter, Reed has more All-Pro selections, 5-3. Reed won a Defensive Player of the Year award while Bailey never did. Reed also collected 12 more interceptions than did Bailey (again, in fewer years), and Reed was part of a Super Bowl-winning squad whereas Bailey never reached that height.
For the time being, Ed Reed gets my vote for Canton. Perhaps, after the next article, I’ll re-visit Bailey.
But for now, I’ve used three of my maximum five slots: Ed Reed joins Kevin Mawae and Alan Faneca.