The NFL’s top 13 safeties

Doug Farrar kicks off Touchdown Wire’s NFL positional lists with the 13 best safeties in the league.

It is very hard to be a great safety from season to season in the NFL.

When we released our list of the league’s best safeties in 2021, we were pretty sure about the greatness of those players. Just five of the 11 players we listed last year made the cut this time around, and that’s with the move to a Top 13 in 2022, because the position has recently exploded in importance and excellence. We’ll eschew the spoilers for the repeat performers, but Anthony Harris, Harrison Smith, Jessie Bates III, Julian Blackmon, John Johnson III, and Darnell Savage aren’t in this list, and they were all in the mix last season.

In some cases, injuries were the reason — Julian Blackmon, for example. Other safeties simply didn’t perform up to their usual standards, and in most cases, we’re talking about fractions of regression — Jessie Bates, Darnell Savage, and Harrison Smith would certainly qualify there. Other safeties took time to find their way with new teams and new schemes — that would be the case for John Johnson III and Anthony Harris.

For the five repeat guys, and the eight new safeties on this list, there were new challenges. An increase in the importance of both two-safety looks and man/match coverage has made it a different game for a lot of players, as has the ever-expanding roles all defensive backs must play in the modern pro game. This has filtered to the collegiate game, as most of the players listed as safeties in the last few draft classes are less “free” and “strong” safeties, and more moveable chess pieces required to do all kinds of things.

Most of the guys on this year’s list are primarily coverage safeties. It’s great when you can blow up run fits and crossers from the slot, and if you can blitz from the edge, that’s fine, too. But in today’s NFL, where everything is about creating and preventing explosive plays, we wanted to focus on the safeties who do the latter thing best. Not to undermine those who ply their trades closer to the line at a more exclusive level, but when we’re talking about the most valuable safeties in the modern game, you’d best be able to erase deep.

So, with five repeat entrants, and eight new guys, here are Touchdown Wire’s top safeties for the 2022 NFL season. It’s the first of 14 different position lists written by myself and Mark Schofield, leading up to our list of the NFL’s top 101 players.

New England Patriots unveil throwback uniforms for 2022 season

The New England Patriots announced the return of their red, “Pat Patriot” throwback uniforms for the 2022 campaign.

Pat Patriot is returning to the field.

The New England Patriots unveiled throwback uniforms for the 2022 season on Wednesday, highlighting the return of the red “Pat Patriot” uniforms that the organization used for decades.

In a piece posted on the team’s website, current players Kendrick Bourne, David Andrews, Matthew Judon and Matthew Slater modeled the red throwback uniforms, which included the red jersey with white and blue shoulder stripes, white pants with red and blue stripes, and the white helmet with the throwback “Pat Patriot” logo.

The Patriots used this uniform combination from 1961 up until 1992, before changing to the design lovingly referred to in the Boston area as the “Flying Elvis.” New England used the red throwbacks on a few occasions, starting with a 2002 Thanksgiving Day game against the Detroit Lions.

When the NFL instituted a “one shell” rule in 2013, forcing teams to use only one helmet in a given season, the team was forced to put the Pat Patriot uniforms on the shelf. But with the league repealing that decision for the upcoming season, Pat Patriot has been cleared to return to the field.

As of now, no word on if quarterback Mac Jones will sport the neckroll in honor of former quarterback Steve Grogan.

Patriots legend Gino Cappelletti dies at 89

Gino Cappelletti has died at the age of 89

The New England Patriots family suffered a loss on Thursday. One of the greats from the AFL days — yes, the Boston Patriots — Gino Cappelletti has died at the age of 89.

Cappelletti was a huge part of the infancy of the organization.

He was a kicker and a wide receiver, catching 292 balls for 4,589 yards and 42 touchdowns.

Cappelletti earned the AFL 1964 Most Valuable Player award and was one of three players to play in every game in the AFL’s 10-year history, along with Jim Otto and George Blanda. Cappelletti finished his career as the AFL’s all-time leader in points (1,100) and field goals (170).

A five-time All-Star selection, he led the AFL in scoring five times and holds the top two scoring seasons in AFL history with 155 points in 1964 and 147 points in 1961.

Dick Raphael-USA TODAY Sports

Patriots owner Robert Kraft released  a lengthy tribute:

“My heart aches after learning of Gino Cappelletti’s passing this morning. For the first 51 years of this franchise’s history, Gino contributed as an all-star player, assistant coach and broadcaster. You couldn’t be a Patriots fan during that era and not be a fan of Gino’s. The Patriots have had many iconic, fan-favorite players over the years. Gino was the first. I remember watching him play in 1960 and throughout his career. He was one of the AFL’s biggest stars, becoming the first Patriots player to earn league MVP honors and retiring as the league’s all-time leading scorer. He became the second player in franchise history to earn Patriots Hall of Fame induction and I will always believe he deserves to be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. As great of a player as he was, he was an even better person and storyteller.”

Cappelletti was in the broadcast booth from 1972-to-78 for the team.

He was special teams coach from 1979-to-81 before returning to the broadcast booth in 1988, where he remained through the 2011 season.

Tom Brady thanks Patriots Nation … finally

Late to the party, but Tom Brady finally thanked Patriots Nation

There was a bit of a social media stir on Tuesday. And not because Tom Brady announced his retirement.

More because of who he left off in his epic message saying he was leaving the NFL after 22 seasons.

Brady didn’t acknowledge the New England Patriots with whom he played 20 seasons.

Thea ruffled many.

A few hours later, the GOAT paid tribute to New England and its fans.

Tom Brady retiring from NFL after 22 seasons

Tom Brady is retiring after 22 seasons in an incomparable career

The GOAT is stepping away under his terms.

Tom Brady announced Saturday he is retiring from the NFL after 20 seasons with the New England Patriots and two with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Quite the resume:

7X Super Bowl champion

5X Super Bowl MVP

3X NFL MVP

15X Pro Bowl

6X All Pro

NFL’s all-time passing TD leader (624)

NFL’s all passing yard leader (85,520)

Most career wins: 243

Brady was a sixth-round pick by the New England Patriots out of Michigan. He was 210-64 as a starter with the Patriots after taking over for Drew Bledsoe.

He moved to Tampa Bay in 2020 and played two seasons with the Buccaneers, winning one Super Bowl. Brady’s record in Tampa was 24-9 and he threw 83 TD passes for Bruce Arians with the NFC South team.

20 years ago on Jan. 19, The Tuck Rule Game happened

Twenty years ago on Jan. 19 in snowy Foxborough, the Tuck Rule became part of NFL lore

Oh, how things might have changed if the play was ruled a fumble and not an incomplete pass on Jan. 19, 2002.

Yes, we have hit the 20-year anniversary of the famous — infamous — Tuck Rule game.

The Oakland Raiders were playing the New England Patriots, whose quarterback was Tom Brady. The weather was miserable, snow and freezing cold temperatures

In the fourth quarter, Raiders’ cornerback Charles Woodson tackled Brady, who initially appeared to fumble the ball that was eventually recovered by Raiders’ linebacker Greg Biekert.

If it was a fumble, it would have almost certainly sealed the game for Oakland, which led 13-10 at that point.

However, officials reviewed the play, and eventually determined that even though Brady had seemingly halted his passing motion and was attempting to “tuck” the ball back into his body, it was an incomplete pass and not a fumble under the then-effective NFL rules.

“Uh…,” Brady said. “You know, he hit me. I wasn’t sure. Yeah, I was throwing the ball. How do you like that? Damn right. Damn right.”

As a result, the original call was overturned, and the ball was given back to the Patriots, who subsequently moved the ball into field goal range.

Adam Vinatieri kicked a 45-yard field goal with 1:11 left to tie the game and in overtime added a 23-yarder to give New England the victory.

“It was obvious,” Raiders head coach Jon Gruden said. “I thought it was a fumble, but the officials thought otherwise.

“You can never count on anything in the NFL. Say what you want, (Brady) made some great plays when he had to.”

The Patriots would defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers next, continue to the Super Bowl, where they would stun the St. Louis Rams for Brady’s first ring.

And we all know what has happened since …

 

Redemption for Brandon Bolden as the New England Patriots get on the scoreboard

New England Patriots running back Brandon Bolden was flagged for a penalty on a fake punt. He redeemed himself on this rushing touchdown.

Bill Belichick is known for having some favorite players.

One of them is reserve running back Brandon Bolden, who sees time both on offense and on special teams for the New England Patriots. Following the trade of Sony Michel earlier this season, and with a focus on the running game around rookie quarterback Mac Jones, Bolden has taken on more of a role with the Patriots offense this season. He entered play on Week 18 with 37 carries for 180 yards on the ground, along with 39 receptions for 385 yards and a touchdown.

As noted, he also plays a role on special teams, and it was there where the veteran found himself in a little bit of controversy early against the Miami Dolphins. With Miami facing a fourth down, the Dolphins decided to fake the punt, and Bolden found himself face-to-face with the scrambling punter.

That’s when this happened:

Bolden was flagged for unnecessary roughness, and instead of the Patriots taking over in Miami territory, the Dolphins kept possession. Both Bolden and his head coach were incredulous, but the call was allowed to stand. Miami would tack on a field goal at the end of the extended possession to take a 17-point lead.

Bolden, however, would get a little redemption on the Patriots’ ensuing drive:

While Bolden typically is used as a receiver and on draw plays, here the Patriots run him behind fullback Jakob Johnson. Miami fits this run really well from a defensive standpoint, and Bolden is forced to make a cut behind the line of scrimmage. But he picks up the first down by evading the initial defender, and then cuts to the left side of the field behind blocks from Nelson Agholor and Jakobi Meyers, and races into the end zone for his first rushing touchdown of the season.

And perhaps some well-deserved redemption from the earlier penalty.

Kristian Wilkerson with a pair of receiving touchdowns for New England

Reserve wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson of the New England Patriots has a pair of touchdown in his first extended regular season action.

Entering their bye week, the New England Patriots were the talk of the football world. Winners of seven-straight games, Bill Belichick’s men were sitting atop the AFC standings with a 9-4 record, and were atop the AFC East after surviving against the Buffalo Bills on a windy Monday night back in Week 13.

Things have taken a bit of a turn since then.

In rather un-Belichick fashion, the Patriots lost two-straight games coming out of their bye week, dropping a road game tot he Indianapolis Colts before the Christmas holiday, and then losing to the Bills at home the day after Christmas. The pair of losses saw the Patriots fall out of first place in the division, and now face the prospects of fighting to stay in the playoffs altogether.

Thankfully for them, a late Christmas gift was delivered on Sunday.

A visit from the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Patriots are rolling at home this Sunday, currently holding a 34-3 lead over the visitors early in the second half. A surprise star for New England? Reserve wide receiver Kristian Wilkerson. With Nelson Agholor still sidelined after suffering a concussion against the Colts, and N’Keal Harry scratched from the list of actives, Wilkerson saw his first extended action of the regular season.

And has two touchdown receptions to show for it.

After notching his first career reception in the first quarter, Wilkerson got on the score sheet on this play from late in the second:

New England has used some sprint and boot concepts recently with Mac Jones, and on this play Wilkerson runs a delayed crossing route working from left-to-right. Jones’ primary read is the running back releasing to the flat, but with that route covered the quarterback has to get to a secondary read, which is Wilkerson coming across the field. Jones puts the throw in a good spot and the receiver completes the play for a touchdown.

His second touchdown came early in the second half, on a fake screen play with Wilkerson releasing vertically:

The design works to spring Wilkerson free on the deep route, and Jones takes advantage for the touchdown.

With this game getting out of hand, fans at Gillette Stadium are likely keeping an eye on the out-of-town scoreboard, where the Miami Dolphins are struggling against the Tennessee Titans and the Bills are in a close game with the Atlanta Falcons. A Patriots’ win coupled with a Dolphins loss clinches a playoff berth for New England, but if the Bills somehow lose to Atlanta, the Patriots could be back atop the division with one game to go.

Patriots QB Mac Jones says he was too focused to grant interview with Peyton Manning

New England Patriots rookie QB Mac Jones explained why he turned down an interview with Peyton Manning ahead of the popular ManningCast for Week 13.

New England Patriots quarterback Mac Jones made history on Monday night in the 14-10 win over the Buffalo Bills.

Not only did the rookie from Alabama play a complete game throwing just three passes, but he also is the only quarterback to date to turn down an interview with Peyton Manning ahead of the popular ManningCast alternate commentary of ESPN Monday Night Football.

Jones told his side of the story on “Merloni & Fauria” on WEEI 93.7 in Boston Tuesday.

“I texted him or whatever,” Jones said. “I am not going to get into any details, but I think we were just focused on the game. The Patriots do a great job of just helping me stay focused on what I need to stay focused on. I was like that in college, too.”

Peyton isn’t the only Manning in Jones’ cell phone. According to the first round pick, Archie Manning, Peyton’s dad, was a resource for him as he was working through the draft process.

“They’re great people,” Jones said. “I’ve been in contact with them throughout the whole process, even Archie, too. He’s a great resource to me.”

Peyton and Archie aren’t the only famous people in Jones’ contacts list, but the 23-year-old wasn’t forthcoming about who else might be in his phone.

“I think if I ever get a chance to get advice from people who have done really well in the NFL or just successful people, I just try to pick their brain and stuff like that. Just being in a situation growing up watching a lot of great players and getting a chance to meet them or talk to them, I always use that to my advantage.”

The Patriots are 9-4 and possess the No. 1 seed in the AFC. With the Patriots’ on a Week 14 bye, Jones intends to stay low key and relax at home in New England.

Bill Belichick’s Monday night game plan further proves, reveals his rare genius

The Patriots’ run-heavy approach against the Bills wasn’t just a one-game gimmick — it was another illustration of Bill Belichick’s situational genius.

In 1950, the NFL welcomed three teams — the Baltimore Colts, San Francisco 49ers, and Cleveland Browns from the All America Football Conference — to its environs. The Browns, led by Paul Brown, had been the AAFC’s dominant franchise, winning all four league championships, so the NFL decided to pit Brown’s team against the Philadelphia Eagles, the league’s two-time defending NFL champs.

It was supposed to be an upbraiding for the new kids, but it was the exact opposite. Brown directed Otto Graham, his Hall of Fame quarterback, to exploit holes in the middle of Philly’s defense, and Graham put up a stat line that wouldn’t be out of place for a quarterback in 2021 — 21 completions in 38 attempts for 346 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions. The Browns won their NFL opener, 35-10.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6xOgmjbfF4s&t=120s

Eagles head coach Earle “Greasy” Neale made some noise before the December 3 rematch about the Browns leaning more on finesse than power, comparing them to a basketball team. This was a major miscalculation on Neale’s part. In that 13-7 Browns victory, Paul Brown’s team ran the ball 41 times, gaining just 68 yards, but still winning on a 30-yard pick-six by Warren Lahr, and two field goals by Hall-of-Famer Lou “The Toe” Groza.

The Browns did not technically throw a single pass, though two attempts were called back due to penalties. Brown told his players that they were specifically not to throw a pass as long as the game was tied, or the Browns had the lead. A rainy day and a muddy field advanced the wisdom of Brown’s strategy, but one gets the sense that Brown was going there no matter what the weather was.

In your face, Greasy.

The Browns won the 1950 NFL championship, 30-28, against the legendary “point-a-minute” Los Angeles Rams, and Brown’s approach was exactly what it should have been: Lean on your quarterback. Graham out-dueled Bob Waterfield, completing 22 of 33 passes for 298 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception.

Paul Brown was one of football’s greatest coaches and thinkers, and one of the primary reasons why is that he understood that not only is there more than one way to win a game, but that your ultimate success should be based on adjusting your approach for situation and opponent. There are not types or archetypes to which a franchise must adhere; there is only the next game, and the specific plan for winning that game.

Bill Belichick has always been a keen observer of Brown’s approach, and he’s always been a week-to-week adjuster, which is where Belichick’s game plan against the Bills on Monday night comes in.

In monsoon conditions, the Patriots threw the ball just three times — the fewest by any team since the 1974 Bills beat the Jets, 16-12,  in a similar Buffalo weather disaster. Bills quarterback Joe Ferguson attempted two passes in that game, completing none, and having two interceptions called back by penalty. New England ran the ball against these Bills 46 times for 222 yards and a touchdown. They ran the ball when it didn’t work early on. They ran the ball when the schemed kicked in, and things got really dicey for Buffalo’s defense. They ran the ball no matter what, because that’s how Belichick saw a specific path to victory.

Could it have backfired? Sure. Did it? Nope. Here’s why.