Do the Colts have the Best Safeties in the NFL?

The Indianapolis Colts have been sitting on a potential gold mine at safety for a few years.  In 2007 Bob Sanders earned honors as the league’s Defensive Player of the Year and his teammate Antoine Bethea earned recognition as a Pro Bowler for the first time.

The team’s depth at safety was still in a question as little was known about how well players like Matt Giordano or, then rookie, Melvin Bullitt could handle spending significant time as starters.  In 2008, the Colts were placed in what could have been a very unfortunate position when Bob Sanders missed much of the season to injury and Melvin Bullitt was elevated to a starting role.

Much to the surprise of Colts fans and the NFL, the former undrafted free agent exceeded all realistic expectations.  The Colts had officially found a third starting caliber safety, a fact that was made even more apparent in 2009 when Bullitt started all but four games.

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For the first time in many years, maybe even the first time in his career, Bob Sanders entered summer workouts and will enter training camp completely healthy.  Sanders’ health is one of the biggest summer storylines in Indianapolis and has fans cautiously optimistic that he will start the season at full strength and healthier than he has been since the ’07 season.

If Sanders manages to enter the season healthy and stays on the field, the Colts will have a luxury that few teams in the NFL can boast and many will covet.  The Colts will carry three starting caliber safeties, including two Pro Bowlers.

This led me to wonder whether any other team in the NFL could actually match the Colts’ overall talent at the position.  The only way to know is to examine each team’s roster, pick out the strongest units, and compare them with Sanders, Bethea, and Bullitt.

Only the following teams, in my opinion, have safeties that are worthy of consideration for best in the NFL.

Baltimore – Dawan Landry, Ed Reed, Tom Zbikowski, Ken Hamlin
Cincinnati – Gibril Wilson, Chindum Ndukwe, Roy Williams, Chris Crocker
Indianapolis – Bob Sanders, Antoine Bethea, Melvin Bullitt, Jamie Silva
New Orleans – Darren Sharper, Roman Harper, Pierson Prioleau, Chip Vaughn
Pittsburgh – Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Tyrone Carter, Will Allen
Seattle – Jordan Babineaux, Kevin Ellison, Lawyer Milloy, Earl Thomas

I was rather surprised that I found such excellent safety talent on five other NFL teams.  Each of them have legitimate arguments for honors as best in the league but I believe that the Colts may hold the crown.

Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have one of the best pass coverage safety units in the league. Ed Reed regularly earns Pro Bowl honors but he has never been one of the NFL’s elite tacklers.  Dawan Landry is the superior tackler and plays a greater role in the ground game.

Behind Landry and Reed, Hamlin is not as talented as Melvin Bullitt.  Hamlin could fill a starting role but only if absolutely needed, whereas Bullitt is a sure-fire starter on most NFL teams.

Zbikowski and Silva are relatively comparable, with Silva finishing the 2009 season with 30 tackles to Zbikowski’s 29.  Silva is not as strong in coverage or as a returner but the only extended time Silva saw on the field last season was in the final two games and he was one of the most productive Colts defenders in those contests.

In short, Baltimore has a better pass defending safety group, but the Colts have two Pro Bowlers to the Ravens’ one and Indy’s unit is vastly superior playing toward the line of scrimmage.

Cincinnati Bengals

If Roy Williams returns to form in 2010, the Bengals safety unit will be stronger than the Colts.  There is a bigger reason to believe that Williams will not stay on the field than return healthy.  Some will argue the same about Sanders but the difference between the two players is important.

Sanders has suffered injuries to various parts of his body, including his knee, shoulder, and bicep over the last three years.  Williams, however, has suffered catastrophic injuries to his forearm three times in the previous two seasons.  Unless his forearm heals in a way it has failed to on two other occasions the likelihood that he will re-fracture the arm and return to the injured reserve is quite high.

Without an astonishing recovery, the Bengals are left with Gibril Wilson, Chris Crocker, and Chindeum Ndukwe.  A healthy Sanders and Bethea are better players than Wilson and Ndukwe, while Bullitt is superior to Crocker.

Again, Williams is the key.  His healthy recovery and return to prominence in the NFL may give the Bengals the strongest safety corps in the NFL.  Without him, the Colts are superior.

New Orleans Saints

Last season Darren Sharper had a career year, with nine interceptions, three returned for touchdowns, and 15 passes defended.  Strangely, when Sharper was with the Vikings he was really not much better than Melvin Bullitt.

If Sharper continues to flourish in New Orleans, in his 14th season (twice as long as Sanders), the Saints have a formidable group of safeties.  Roman Harper is a solid tackler, and plays much better than Sharper as a tackler and in the ground game.

On top of questions surrounding Sharper’s repeat performance, there is a big question surrounding Chip Vaughn’s development.  If Vaughn can become the kind of player analysts foresaw when he was drafted, he could prove superior to Melvin Bullitt.

Those two big questions leave the Saints a man short at this point, though, and give the Colts the nod.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers group of Polamalu, Clark, and Carter is a strong one-two-three punch.  Polamalu often draws comparison to Sanders, when both are healthy, although he is a superior pass defender and not quite as strong playing toward the line.

Ryan Clark had a solid 2009 campaign and, if he maintains his performance, is a legitimate starter at free safety.  He is not as good as Bethea though, and this would give the Colts the early edge in a direct comparison.

The final nudge for the Colts is comparing Tyrone Carter with Melvin Bullitt.  At this point in both players’ careers Bullitt is superior.  Additionally, Carter remains an unrestricted free agent that may or may not return to Pittsburgh.  Without Carter, the Steelers are a full player short of matching up with the Colts.

Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks are on this list primarily because Jordan Babineaux had a breakout 2009 season.  If he maintains his elite level of performance, he will likely be a Pro Bowl selection in 2010.

The remainder of the Seahawks safety depth is riddled with questions, like Lawyer Milloy’s age and the development of first round draft pick Earl Thomas.  Kevin Ellison is a solid backup safety but nothing more.

Assuming Milloy is nothing more than a backup at 36 years old, the comparison rests on the shoulders of rookie Thomas’ development.  Even then, the Colts win the comparison between Ellison and Bullitt, along with the starting units head-to-head.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the honor of “best safety unit in the NFL” will come down to the development and health of the Bengals, Saints, and Colts.

Even with a very questionable and disconcerting injury history, Sanders likelihood to return to game-breaking form is higher than Roy Williams with his chronic forearm problems. The comparison with the Saints hinges on a total unknown in Chip Vaughn’s development, compared to what is already known about Melvin Bullitt.

Tentatively, I would give the Colts the nod as having the strongest safety unit in the NFL.  The real answer will only be known well into the 2010 season.

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