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For more from Chase and Jason, check out their work at Football Perspective and The Big Lead.

Great Defensive Backs playing together

Posted by Chase Stuart on August 5, 2009

I've spent some time this summer examining great players playing at the same position on the same team since 1950. If you want to check out the prior posts, just follow the links below:

Great Linebackers Playing Together
Great Defensive Linemen Playing Together
Great Front Sevens Playing Together
Great Offensive Linemen Playing Together

Today we'll finish off this series on non-skill position players with a look at great defensive backs playing together. Just as before, this post is not a look at the greatest defensive backs groups ever assembled. We might attempt to do that one day, but that’s not the goal here. What I want to know is what teams have seen a bunch of great safeties and corners playing together while those players were in their primes?

As always, I’m using Doug’s Approximate Value system to rate the defensive backs, as opposed to things like interceptions, tackles, Pro Bowl selections or starts. Approximate Value incorporates all of those factors, and a little more. It’s far from perfect, but it’s probably the best way to rank large groups of players from several different eras across every position.

I recorded the peak three years for every defensive back since 1950, and assigned the average of those numbers as the rating for each player. Then I gave him an age adjusted score for each season. As usual, the age adjusted score is the rating I’m giving each DB for each season of play, not his actual AV grade.

I looked at many of the best DBs in NFL history to get a sense of the average dropoff rate as players age. I did not separate out cornerbacks from safeties, and one could certainly argue that they deteriorate at different rates. Regardless, I've come up with a best-fit curve to measure the level of production at different ages for all defensive backs.

20	0.40
21	0.51
22	0.63
23	0.73
24	0.81
25	0.88
26	0.93
27	0.97
28	0.99
29	1.00
30	0.99
31	0.97
32	0.93
33	0.87
34	0.80
35	0.72
36	0.62
37	0.50
38	0.37
39	0.35
40	0.35
41	0.30

Rod Woodson (along with Emlen Tunnell) has the highest peak AV of any defensive back, at 19.3. The aging curve we're using makes a 22-year-old Woodson about equal to a 26-year-old Carnell Lake (peak of 13.3) or a 38-year-old Woodson equivalent to a 34-year-old Brock Marion (peak of 9.0). The table below lists the teams with the 50 best ratings using the above system (ignoring repeats):


team-yr  Avg  DB1                          DB2                         DB3                           DB4
dal-1971 14.2 Herb Adderley (32): 17.7     Mel Renfro (30): 16.0       Cornell Green (31): 14.7      Cliff Harris (23): 14
dal-1970 13.7 Herb Adderley (31): 17.7     Mel Renfro (29): 16.0       Cornell Green (30): 14.7      Charlie Waters (22): 11.3
gnb-1967 13.5 Herb Adderley (28): 17.7     Willie Wood (31): 17.3      Bob Jeter (30): 12.0          Tom Brown (27): 8.0
nyg-1951 13.2 Emlen Tunnell (26): 19.3     Tom Landry (27): 14.0       Otto Schnellbacher (28): 12.0 Harmon Rowe (28): 9.3
nyg-1961 13.2 Jimmy Patton (28): 19.0      Erich Barnes (26): 15.7     Dick Lynch (25): 11.3         Dick Nolan (29): 9.3
det-1956 13.1 Jack Christiansen (28): 17.3 Yale Lary (26): 16.3        Jim David (29): 12.3          Carl Karilivacz (26): 8.0
gnb-1963 13.0 Willie Wood (27): 17.3       Herb Adderley (24): 17.7    Jesse Whittenton (29): 13.3   Hank Gremminger (30): 7.7
det-1958 12.9 Jack Christiansen (30): 17.3 Yale Lary (28): 16.3        Jim David (31): 12.3          Terry Barr (23): 8.7
gnb-1969 12.9 Herb Adderley (30): 17.7     Willie Wood (33): 17.3      Bob Jeter (32): 12.0          Doug Hart (30): 7.7
nyg-1963 12.7 Jimmy Patton (30): 19.0      Erich Barnes (28): 15.7     Dick Lynch (27): 11.3         Allan Webb (30): 5.3
min-1970 12.6 Paul Krause (28): 16.3       Karl Kassulke (29): 12.7    Ed Sharockman (31): 11.3      Bobby Bryant (26): 11.3
dal-1973 12.5 Mel Renfro (32): 16.0        Cornell Green (33): 14.7    Cliff Harris (25): 14.0       Charlie Waters (25): 11.3
sfo-1994 12.4 Deion Sanders (27): 17.0     Merton Hanks (26): 12.3     Tim McDonald (29): 11.0       Eric Davis (26): 11.3
nyg-1955 12.4 Emlen Tunnell (30): 19.3     Tom Landry (31): 14.0       Herb Rich (27): 10.3          Dick Nolan (23): 9.3
nyg-1957 12.4 Emlen Tunnell (32): 19.3     Jimmy Patton (24): 19.0     Dick Nolan (25): 9.3          Ed Hughes (30): 8.0
nyg-1964 12.3 Jimmy Patton (31): 19.0      Erich Barnes (29): 15.7     Dick Lynch (28): 11.3         Dick Pesonen (26): 4.3
pit-1977 12.3 Mel Blount (29): 16.0        Donnie Shell (25): 14.3     Glen Edwards (30): 11.7       J.T. Thomas (26): 9.7
min-1972 12.3 Paul Krause (30): 16.3       Karl Kassulke (31): 12.7    Bobby Bryant (28): 11.3       Charlie West (26): 10.0
was-1978 12.2 Lemar Parrish (31): 14.0     Jake Scott (33): 15.3       Ken Houston (34): 15.3        Joe Lavender (29): 9.7
nyg-1960 12.2 Jimmy Patton (27): 19.0      Lindon Crow (27): 12.3      Dick Nolan (28): 9.3          Dick Lynch (24): 11.3
clt-1968 12.2 Bobby Boyd (31): 17.7        Jerry Logan (27): 12.3      Rick Volk (23): 14.3          Lenny Lyles (32): 10.0
ram-1969 12.2 Richie Petitbon (31): 16.7   Eddie Meador (32): 16.0     Ron Smith (26): 9.7           Clancy Williams (27): 9.0
phi-2002 12.2 Brian Dawkins (29): 14.7     Troy Vincent (31): 14.3     Blaine Bishop (32): 11.7      Bobby Taylor (29): 9.3
rav-2005 12.2 Ed Reed (27): 16.3           Chris McAlister (28): 14.3  Samari Rolle (29): 12.3       Will Demps (26): 6.7
mia-1974 12.2 Dick Anderson (28): 16.0     Jake Scott (29): 15.3       Tim Foley (26): 9.7           Curtis Johnson (26): 9.0
min-1971 12.1 Paul Krause (29): 16.3       Karl Kassulke (30): 12.7    Ed Sharockman (32): 11.3      Charlie West (25): 10.0
rai-1968 12.0 Willie Brown (28): 17.0      Dave Grayson (29): 13.0     Kent McCloughan (28): 11.7    Rodger Bird (25): 7.3
crd-1971 12.0 Miller Farr (28): 14.3       Larry Wilson (33): 14.3     Roger Wehrli (24): 14.7       Jerry Stovall (30): 9.3
gnb-1959 11.9 Emlen Tunnell (34): 19.3     Bobby Dillon (29): 13.3     Jesse Whittenton (25): 13.3   Hank Gremminger (26): 7.7
ram-1970 11.9 Richie Petitbon (32): 16.7   Eddie Meador (33): 16.0     Kermit Alexander (29): 9.3    Clancy Williams (28): 9.0
sfo-1985 11.9 Ronnie Lott (26): 16.7       Eric Wright (26): 13.3      Dwight Hicks (29): 11.0       Carlton Williamson (27):9.0
det-1960 11.9 Yale Lary (30): 16.3         Night Train Lane (33): 17.0 Dick LeBeau (23): 12.0        Gary Lowe (26): 8.3
min-1968 11.8 Paul Krause (26): 16.3       Karl Kassulke (27): 12.7    Ed Sharockman (29): 11.3      Earsell Mackbee (27): 8.7
pit-1976 11.8 Mel Blount (28): 16.0        Glen Edwards (29): 11.7     Mike Wagner (27): 11.3        J.T. Thomas (25): 9.7
min-1969 11.7 Paul Krause (27): 16.3       Karl Kassulke (28): 12.7    Bobby Bryant (25): 11.3       Earsell Mackbee (28): 8.7
nyg-1953 11.7 Emlen Tunnell (28): 19.3     Tom Landry (29): 14.0       Frank Gifford (23): 13        Don Menasco (24): 5.3
det-1953 11.7 Jack Christiansen (25): 17.3 Yale Lary (23): 16.3        Jim David (26): 12.3          Bob Smith (28): 8.3
ram-1985 11.7 LeRoy Irvin (28): 15.0       Nolan Cromwell (30): 13.0   Gary Green (30): 10.7         Johnnie Johnson (29): 8.3
rav-2006 11.6 Ed Reed (28): 16.3           Chris McAlister (29): 14.3  Samari Rolle (30): 12.3       Dawan Landry (24): 4.7
clt-1963 11.6 Bobby Boyd (26): 17.7        Andy Nelson (30): 13.3      Lenny Lyles (27): 10.0        Jim Welch (25): 8.0
tam-2000 11.6 Ronde Barber (25): 17.3      John Lynch (29): 14.3       Donnie Abraham (27): 9.7      Damien Robinson (27): 7.7
chi-1966 11.6 Richie Petitbon (28): 16.7   Rosey Taylor (29): 13       Bennie McRae (27): 8.7        Dave Whitsell (30): 8.3
was-1973 11.5 Ken Houston (29): 15.3       Mike Bass (28): 12.3        Pat Fischer (33): 11.0        Brig Owens (30): 9.0
det-1952 11.5 Jack Christiansen (24): 17.3 Don Doll (26): 11.7         Jim David (25): 12.3          Yale Lary (22): 16.3
gnb-1964 11.5 Willie Wood (28): 17.3       Herb Adderley (25): 17.7    Doug Hart (25): 7.7           Tom Brown (24): 8.0
nyg-1952 11.5 Emlen Tunnell (27): 19.3     Tom Landry (28): 14.0       Harmon Rowe (29): 9.3         Don Menasco (23): 5.3
mia-2003 11.4 Sam Madison (29): 16.7       Patrick Surtain (27): 12.7  Sammy Knight (28): 9.0        Brock Marion (33): 9.0
pit-1980 11.4 Mel Blount (32): 16.0        Donnie Shell (28): 14.3     Mike Wagner (31): 11.3        Ron Johnson (24): 7.0
was-1971 11.4 Richie Petitbon (33): 16.7   Mike Bass (26): 12.3        Pat Fischer (31): 11.0        Brig Owens (28): 9.0
dal-1997 11.4 Deion Sanders (30): 17.0     Darren Woodson (28): 13.3   Brock Marion (27): 9.0        Kevin R. Smith (27): 7.0
  • The top six DB combos in this system, counting duplicates, all feature Herb Adderley: the '66-'68 Packers and the '70-'72 Cowboys.
  • The 1957 Giants are pretty interesting. Two guys most people have never heard of -- Emlen Tunnell and Jimmy Patton -- both have incredibly high peak AV ratings. Tunnell is helped by his good return numbers, but both players have very impressive accolades. Tunnell was named to 9 Pro Bowls while Patton was named 1st-team All-Pro in five straight seasons. The careers of the two safeties barely overlapped, though; only in '56 and '57 did they both start for New York. That may have worked out better for the team, however, because the Giants ended up sending a safety to the Pro Bowl in thirteen straight seasons. From 1950 to 1957 it was Tunnell; from '58 to '62, Patton earned that honor. Tunnell was the first black player to play for the Giants and in 1967, became the first black player to make the Hall of Fame. Patton remains one of the best players in NFL history not to end up in Canton.
  • Those '57 Giants were very top heavy. The two safeties had huge ratings while the two cornerbacks were relatively average players. Both guys -- Dick Nolan and Ed Hughes -- would go on to coach in the NFL.
  • If you're sick of seeing the early '70s Cowboys, I don't blame you. The '72 Cowboys, featuring the same five linemen as the '71 team, came in as one of the top five OLs in that study. The '70 Cowboys just missed the cut on the great front seven list. And now they're tops in the DB list. Throw in Roger Staubach, Bob Hayes and Lance Alworth (and Mike Ditka), and they had quite a team.
  • Despite AV's love for Rod Woodson, he doesn't show up on this list. The best secondary he played on according to this formula? The '97 49ers just missed the cut with a rating of 11.3, when Woodson played alongside Merton Hanks and Tim McDonald. The '96 Steelers with Carnell Lake and Woodson also came in with a score of 11.3.
  • The 49ers drafted Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright and Carlton Williamson in the '81 draft, and the trio helped San Francisco win the Super Bowl as rookies. Along with Dwight Hicks (25), that was one of the youngest secondaries of all-time, with an average age of twenty-three years. All four players had peak AVs of 9 or higher, but in '81 they scored only a 8.7 due to their young ages.
  • The '70 Vikings came in as the top defensive line unit when we looked at that position; but they weren't exactly shabby in the defensive backfield. All four DBs had peak AVs of 11.3 or higher, and all were still in their prime in '70. Their linebackers all had peak AVs in the double digits, and were in their primes in 1970. All that potential turned in some very good production -- I rated the '69 to '71 Vikings as arguably the best defense of all-time when I took a very cursory glance at the subject last December.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, August 5th, 2009 at 7:17 am and is filed under Approximate Value, Best/Worst Ever. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.