That was an interesting Super Bowl, all things considered. It was a blowout, but definitely showed once again what can be done with a nightmarishly effective defense. Peyton Manning set a bunch of records this season and has possibly solidified his position as the greatest quarterback ever. I throw that “possibly” in there because his Super Bowl performance was shockingly sub par, as was that of his team, and all the records in the world don’t count for a thing if you botch the biggest game of the year.
On the other hand, Seattle looked fantastic all season and most definitely earned that Super Bowl victory. They did so under the solid leadership and skill of quarterback Russell Wilson and the always consistent running of Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch. That's not to mention the stingiest defense in the league, who kept one of the best offenses in history at bay. They allowed just one touchdown on Sunday, where Denver’s offense encountered a nearly immaculate defense that made the Broncos look like a college team and Peyton look like Eli.
With this season in the books, it's time to start looking at some of the players around the league who led in defensive stats this year. For this piece it will be the safeties, in part because while all of football fandom is discussing Richard Sherman, Seattle's safeties were extremely dominant all year as well.
I argue that safety is one of the most demanding positions on the football field both physically and mentally. Physically, an NFL safety has to be fast and agile enough to cover a speedy wide receiver but also strong enough to step up and shed a block from a 300lb guard, before putting the hurt on a 230lb running back charging through the defensive line. On the mental side of the game, safeties are often the last obstacle between offensive players and the end zone. If a running back gets a couple of good blocks up front and sheds a linebacker’s tackle, your squad had better have a strong, brave safety capable of manhandling him. Similarly with a passing situation, whether in man or zone defense, safeties have to be constantly conscious of the locations and intentions of receivers, taking care to never let one be further down the field. On top of all that, they need to be constantly vigilant against the possibility of play action, reverses and other creative plays, where if the safety bites, you can generally tack up 7 points for the offense.
Finally, NFL teams should watch for safeties who can time a run and leap combination so perfectly that they can fly over the offensive line at the exact nanosecond the ball is snapped. They are rare, but occasionally you find that skill set and an endorsement-winning hairdo in one player. But enough about Troy, here is a list of the top intercepting safeties of 2013, including the playoffs. I will calculate their salaries divided by number of picks. I will use base salary plus bonuses with regards to each player’s salary. All salary information is from spotrac.com and all individual stats were taken from nfl.com.
6 Jairus Byrd: 4 Interceptions, $1,729,000 Per INT
Plenty of people are arguing that Jairus Byrd is one of the best safeties in the league. He is also a free agent during the 2014 offseason and if the Bills are smart they will do what they have to do to keep him. In 2013, he intercepted the ball 4 times and had 6 defended passes. This is impressive because he did it in only 11 games.
Reports are mixed as to whether or not the Bills are going to bring him back at this point due to injury concerns. As far as his dollars-per-pick numbers, his approximate $6.9 million salary spread out over 4 interceptions is roughly $1,725,000 per INT. This isn’t too steep however, because as free safeties go, Byrd is also a solid rush defender and if he stays healthy, could be a solid defender for years to come.
5 Eric Reid: 4 Interceptions, $385,488 Per INT
San Francisco’s rookie, Eric Reid from Louisiana State, had a solid first year in the NFL, starting all 16 regular season games and seeing action in the playoffs during the 49ers' three post season games. This first rounder was also named an alternate for the Pro Bowl in 2013, showing that he could have a great future in the NFL. With 4 interceptions on an approximate $1.5 million salary, that comes out to around $385,000 per pick.
However, there are concerns about Reid in terms of his tackling and that he may be injury prone. His tackling isn’t a major issue, but it does need to improve, and since he is a rookie, it’s fair to be optimistic with regard to his improvement. What is troubling however, is the fact that he sustained two concussions this season, which despite not causing him to miss a game, is a troubling statistic for a rookie. Overall, it was a good start to what could very well be a long and successful career.
8. Aaron Williams: 4 Interceptions, $358,533 Per INT
Jairus Byrd’s counterpart at the rear of the Bills’ defense also makes this list due to his 4 interceptions. On top of his picks this year, he also had 15 defended passes. Adding his and Byrd’s interceptions together makes 8 which ties them for the league lead in terms of safety duo picks in the regular season with Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas of the Seahawks (although the Seahawks’ combo takes it if we include the playoffs with Chancellor grabbing two more).
Recently, when asked for his opinion on the future of Byrd with the team, Williams expressed his hope that his partner would be kept on board but admitted that he was in no position to make such a decision. With a salary of around $1.4 million, and 4 interceptions, that comes out to about $350,000 per pick. Williams had a good year and has proven that he can function well at the strong safety position.
4 Mike Mitchell: 4 Interceptions, $250,000 Per INT
After three sub par seasons in Oakland, where he rarely started, Mitchell had a decent season this year with the Panthers. On top of 4 interceptions, he had 2 forced fumbles, 10 passes successfully defended and 4 sacks. At a salary of $1 million, which gives $250,000 per pick, he’s a decent safety, but he and other Panthers defensive backs have been called undisciplined. Especially after three key penalties they took in their loss to San Francisco in the playoffs. That said, the Panthers seem happy with him overall as he was originally going to be a backup but stepped up to the starting position after Charles Godfrey was injured in week 2.
3 Jim Leonhard: 4 Interceptions, $210,000 Per INT
The 3rd Buffalo Bills player on this list only started 6 games this season, and his 4 picks are an impressive statistic for Leonhard, who has been all over the league since he was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Bills back in 2005. His first season back with Buffalo saw him in a backup role, but when he was given the opportunity to start, he looked decent and was able to snag 4 picks in the 2013 season. His dollars per interception number is $210,000 with a salary of $840,000, and given his ability to play safety and be a return specialist, he's a valuable backup. However, if Jairus Byrd were to leave Buffalo, it’s questionable whether he would be able to be a full-time starter and keep the Bills’ safeties as competitive as they are with Byrd and Williams.
2 Quintin Demps: 4 Interceptions, $178,750 Per INT
Demps has had a rough time in the NFL so far. Now 28, he was originally taken in the draft by Philadelphia, but was unable to attain a starting job in their defensive scheme, for which he takes responsibility due to his own admission of immaturity. This year he made it clear that he is a talented safety and there is some talk of him becoming a starter for the Chiefs, although they are still looking for a more consistent prospect. His 4 interceptions in conjunction with his 13 passes defended make him a bargain at $178,750 per pick and a salary of $715,000. It will be interesting to see whether he will become a starter in the Chiefs’ secondary this year or whether they will be able to find a suitable free agent or draft pick.
1 Kam Chancellor: 5 Interceptions, $775,680 Per INT
Recent Super Bowl winner Kam Chancellor is number 4 on this list and that placement has been well earned. He has been a fantastic part of what is potentially one of the finest secondaries that we have seen in a long time. He had 3 picks in the regular season and then intercepted Colin Kaepernick and Peyton Manning in the post season. On top of that, he had 14 defended passes in the season and playoffs. Chancellor is an interesting player, as he was not drafted until the 5th round of the 2010 draft. This is because as safeties go, he is slow. He ran a 4.69 40-yard-dash that year but has sped up since then, hitting 4.59. Also, it should be mentioned that as safeties in the NFL go, he is massive at 6'3" and 231lbs.
It is interesting that he has had the effect he has in pass coverage, due to the fact that he was considered a slight liability against the pass and a more effective rush defender. His salary of approximately $3.9 million means that his dollars-to-picks number is around $780,000, which is a decent amount but this guy, like many on this list, is about more than just interceptions and can easily mangle most running backs in the league.
3. Earl Thomas: 5 Interceptions, $579,643 Per INT
A 3-time Pro Bowler, a Super Bowl winner and colleague of Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas was equal with him in interceptions this year, catching 5 and solidifying them as the number one safety duo. He and Richard Sherman are both becoming free agents in 2015 and it will be interesting to see who the Seahawks decide to keep around, as Sherman and Thomas will both more than likely seek more money than Seattle can pay. Either way, Thomas was a major reason that the Seahawks had such a dominant defense this year. His salary of around $2.9 million and pick total divides down to just under $600,000 per interception, but he has other uses and can stop the run, much like Chancellor.
2. Tashaun Gibson: 5 Interceptions, $96,100 Per INT
This was Tashaun Gipson’s first year as a starter in the NFL, playing free safety for Cleveland. His worst/best game of the season was possibly against the Bears when he caught two interceptions, but gave up a key reception in the fourth quarter while trying to make his third pick of the game. His 5 interceptions this year is a great number, and although he was admittedly shaky at the safety position, having played corner in college, he has developed a good understanding of the position. With a salary of $480,500 and $96,100 per pick this year, he is a solid, valuable player for the Browns and it will be exciting to see if he continues to improve as he has thus far in his young career.
1. Antrel Rolle: 6 Interceptions, $1,541,667 Per INT
This year’s safety interception leader is Antrel Rolle of the New York Giants. The 2011 Super Bowl winner and 3-time Pro Bowl selection is one of the NFL’s highest-paid safeties and has definitely earned that honor. He had one great game this year against Baltimore in which he had 3 picks, but unfortunately Eli Manning excelled in that game, giving up 5 interceptions himself. Nonetheless, Antrel Rolle is a phenomenal safety and one of the most reliable in the league. $9.25 million divided by his 6 picks is roughly $1.5 million per pick, but given his leadership qualities, effective play and the fact that he is the best player on the Giants’ roster, I would say he's well worth the money.