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Safety dance

Top 10 players at the NFL's hottest defensive position

Posted: Tuesday August 30, 2005 11:31AM; Updated: Tuesday August 30, 2005 11:31AM
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Ed Reed led the NFL with nine interceptions last season.

There's a subtle trend happening in today's NFL secondaries and Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed is the face of it. Gone are the days when cornerbacks with primetime flair held sole ownership of the spotlight. Now the safeties are getting more love. Just look around. The more complex offenses become and the more difficult it gets for cornerbacks under the illegal-contact rule, the more safeties are being asked to become disruptive forces.

Some are better at coverage. Others excel in the box. But one thing is certain: They're all assuming more responsibilities. That's why a guy like Reed -- last year's NFL Defensive Player of the Year -- is so valuable. He can do whatever a defensive coordinator needs. But there are plenty of others besides the Ravens star around the league. Here's SI.Com's list of the 10 best playmakers lining up at safety these days.

1. Ed Reed, safety, Ravens: He's not just the best safety in the NFL. He's the best defensive player. Last year he led the league with nine interceptions and a league-record 358 return yards while adding two defensive touchdowns (one on a 106-yard interception return and the other on a 22-yard fumble return). This year he'll be even more dangerous in Baltimore's 46 defense. "You can see he really studies the game," says Jets head coach Herm Edwards. "He doesn't just walk out there and play. He waits for his opportunity to make the play and when you think he's not going to make the play, that's when he gets you."

2. Brian Dawkins, free safety, Eagles: Like Reed, there is little Dawkins can't do on a football field. He covers like a cornerback. He hits like a linebacker. He reads plays as if he's wired into the headset of the opposing offensive coordinator. Last season the Eagles asked him to play a more conservative centerfield-type role in order to help young cornerbacks Lito Sheppard and Sheldon Brown. Now that they've proven themselves, expect Dawkins to become a freewheeling defender again.

3. Roy Williams, strong safety, Cowboys: This two-time Pro Bowler will be more of a terror because he's returning to his natural position after playing free safety last season. He's at his best when he's in the box, where he can support against the run and blitz. He's not great in coverage but opponents say that doesn't matter. He likes intimidating opponents with his physical presence, even if he crosses the line. "He's gotten me with a few cheap shots," says Giants wide receiver Amani Toomer. "His hits tend to be either late or borderline shots."

4. Rodney Harrison, strong safety, Patriots: He was supposed to be declining when New England signed him two years ago. Now he looks like one of the best free-agent acquisitions in the past decade. There isn't a safety in the league better at run support. His leadership is just as valuable. His presence is one key reason the Patriots' injury-ravaged secondary never skipped a beat during last year's Super Bowl run.