Top 10 Defensive Backs Not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Updated on November 25, 2019
Ty Tayzlor profile image

TT is an online writer with over four years of experience writing about sports and pop culture.

These guys could shutdown receivers and make plays in the secondary, but they haven't yet made it to Canton. Today, I'll rank the top 10 defensive backs not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

10. Ken Riley

He's one of the most underrated cornerbacks in league history.

A sixth round pick in 1969, Ken Riley switched from quarterback to cornerback and he immediately made an impact. In his rookie year, he recorded 4 interceptions and 66 return yards. He also recovered 2 fumbles, added another 334 yards on 14 kickoff returns, and even caught 2 passes for 15 yards on offense. For the rest of his career, Riley established himself as one of the top defensive backs in Professional Football, recording three or more interceptions in all but three of his 15 seasons. In his 15 Pro Football seasons, Riley recorded a total of 65 interceptions, 596 return yards, five touchdowns, 18 fumble recoveries, 96 fumble return yards, 334 kickoff return yards, and 15 receiving yards. His interceptions, interception return yards, and interceptions returned for touchdowns are all Bengals records. Riley retired after the 1983 season as a four time All-Pro.

He doesn't get recognized as a Hall of Famer because there isn't a standout moment from his career.

9. Everson Walls

He quietly had one of the most productive careers a corner has ever had.

An undrafted free agent, Everson Walls signed with his hometown Dallas Cowboys. Although he was being targeted by opposing quarterbacks who were throwing away from more experienced players like Dennis Thurman, he made an immediate impact by leading the league in interceptions with 11. Walls continued his dominance in the 80's leading the league in interceptions two more times. He and Ed Reed are the only two players in NFL history to lead the league in interceptions three times. He spent his final seasons with the Giants and Browns before retiring after 1993. In his 13 seasons, Walls was a four time Pro Bowler, three time All-Pro, three time league interception leader, five time Cowboys interceptions leader and Super Bowl XXV champion.

Its a mystery what the Hall of Fame voters have against Everson Walls. To come into the NFL undrafted, lead the league in interceptions three times, and still rank tenth in league history with 57 interceptions has to warrant a gold jacket.

8. Jake Scott

He was a key piece in the "No Name" Defense.

After spending his first year in the Canadian Football League, Jake Scott was drafted by Miami in the seventh round of 1970. He was the team's starting strong safety and primary punt returner. Scott was a key member of the 1972 Miami Dolphins undefeated season, and was named Super Bowl MVP of Super Bowl VII by recording two interceptions in the Dolphins'14-7 win over Washington. In Super Bowl VIII, he recovered two fumbles. Scott spent his final years in Washington before retiring in 1978. He was a five time pro bowler, five time All-Pro, the Dolphins all time leader in interceptions, two time Super Bowl champion, and Super Bowl VII MVP.

Scott gets lost in history because of the fact that he played on a defense nobody knew. His last year in Washington was also a big disappointment.

7. LeRoy Butler

Other than Reggie White, he was the biggest asset to the Packers defense.

A second round pick in 1990, LeRoy Butler was the key piece in the secondary. He led or tied for the team lead in interceptions in five different seasons. He was the first defensive back in NFL history with 20 sacks and 20 interceptions. Butler is also credited with inventing the "Lambeau Leap" after scoring a touchdown in 1993. In his 12 seasons, he was a four time All-Pro and pro bowler, a member of the 90s All-Decade team, two time NFC champion, and Super Bowl champion.

Butler was forced to retire after a shoulder injury wouldn't heal properly. Had he'd played longer and put up more stats, he would have made it.

6. Lemar Parrish

He was Deion Sanders before Deion Sanders.

A seventh round pick in 1970, Lemar Parrish immediately made an impact not just as a defensive back but also as a kick returner on special teams. In his rookie year, he recorded five interceptions, a fumble recovery, 194 yards returning punts, 482 yards returning kickoffs, and scored two touchdowns. In 1974, Parrish set a franchise record with an NFL leading 18.8 yards per punt return average. In his 13 seasons, he recorded 47 interceptions for 462 yards, 13 fumble recoveries for 65 yards, 131 punt returns for 1,205 yards, 61 kickoffs for 1,504 yards, and 13 touchdowns. Parrish left Cincinnati due to contract disputes an he spent his final seasons in Washington and Buffalo before retiring in 1982. He was an eight time pro bowler and five time All-Pro.

He dealt with injuries late in his career and his departure from Cincinnati didn't help. Had he played his entire career alongside Ken Riley, the two could have been remembered as one of the best cornerback duos in history.

5. Deron Cherry

He is one of the best free safeties in history.

After going undrafted in 1981, Deron Cherry made the Chiefs roster by playing safety and punter. He had six 100 tackle seasons in his 11 years as a member of the Chiefs, with a career total of 927 tackles. He is Kansas City's all time leader in fumble recoveries with 15 and ranks third in team history in interceptions with 50. Cherry retired after 1991 as a six time pro bowler, five time All-Pro, and a member of the 80s All-Decade team.

Cherry played for Kansas City before they were a contender. Had he spent a majority of his career with guys like Neil Smith, Derrick Thomas, Albert Lewis, and Kevin Ross, Kansas could have won a couple Super Bowls and Cherry would have been a first ballot Hall of Famer.

4. Cliff Harris

"Captain Crash" was the best free safety of the 70s.

After going undrafted in 1970. Cliff Harris signed with Dallas and was almost immediately named the team's starting free safety. He teamed up with Charlie Waters to form the top safety duo in the NFL in the 70s. Harris made it a point to wear the pads of kickers in order to keep his speed and quickness up. His nickname was given by his teammates for his punishing hits and reckless pursuit of ball carriers. The Cowboys' defense ranked in the top 10 every year with him in the lineup. In his 10 years in Dallas, he was a six time pro bowler, four time All-Pro, a member of the 70s All-Decade team, five time NFC champion, and two time Super Bowl champion.

Harris surprisingly retired at age 31 to focus on his oil business ventures. Had he'd played longer he would have put up better stats and would have made a few more Pro Bowls.

3. Eric Allen

He was cornerback who could take an interception back for a touchdown almost every time.

A second round pick in 1988, Eric Allen was an immediate starter and a true playmaker in the Philadelphia secondary. He is the only player in NFL history to run back three or more interceptions for touchdowns in two separate seasons. His most famous moment came in 1993 when he returned an interception 94 yards for a touchdown which has been labeled as the greatest interception return in history. In his 14 seasons, Allen was a six time pro bowler and three time All-Pro.

Allen gets lost in history because his teams never won a championship. Also it doesn't help that he played 14 years between three teams questioning why Philadelphia was willing to let him go.

2. Donnie Shell

He is one of the best strong safeties of his generation.

After going undrafted in 1974, Donnie Shell signed with Pittsburgh. He teamed with Mike Wagner to form one of the top safety duos of the decade. Shell had a nose for the ball and could make big defensive hits. He had two, seven interception seasons and had seven straight seasons with at least four interceptions. He played the second most games in team history with 201 and trailing only Hall of Fame center Mike Webster. In his 14 years in Pittsburgh, Shell was a five time pro bowler, four time All-Pro, and four time Super Champion.

For the early part of Shell's career, he was a backup before starting late in the 70s. Also he played with four Hall of Famers on defense so he tends to be forgotten about in the group.

1. Steve Atwater

He is one of the hardest hitting safeties in league history.

A first round pick in 1989, Steve Atwater was brought in to improve a defense that ranked second to last the previous season. He was used close to the line of scrimmage in order to fortify Denver's run defense and he led the team in tackles finishing with 129 tackles his rookie season. Early in his career, Atwater teamed with fellow Broncos safety Dennis Smith to form one of the best safety tandems of their generation. In Super Bowl XXXII, he posted one of the better performances by a safety in a Super Bowl and one of the greatest games of his career. In that game, he is credited with six solo tackles, one sack, two passes defensed and a forced fumble. Atwater spent his final season with Jets before retiring in 1999. He was an eight time pro bowler, three time All-Pro, and Super Bowl champion.

With only seven safeties in the Hall of Fame, its one of the hardest positions to make it. Atwater will get in one day, but it will take time.

People's Poll

Who is the best defensive back not in the Hall of Fame?

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Questions & Answers


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      • profile image

        Kevin Goodwin 

        4 years ago

        Steve Atwater is a complete snub and should be in the Hall of fame.

      • Ty Tayzlor profile imageAUTHOR


        4 years ago from Anywhere

        Safety is definitely the least represented Paul. The next least represented position is tight end with only eight.

      • Paul Edmondson profile image

        Paul Edmondson 

        4 years ago from Burlingame, CA

        Atwater hit people so hard it made me uncomfortable. He will get in some day. Fascinating that so few safety's are in the hall. Is there another position with less?

      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        4 years ago from Oklahoma

        A lot of great names. As far as someone on your list that has fail off many radars: Deron Cherry. People forget just how awesome he was.

      • lions44 profile image

        CJ Kelly 

        4 years ago from Auburn, WA

        Atwater, Shell and Allen are the biggest omissions here. But I would have Harris and Cherry as well.

        I'm pretty easy when it comes to the Football Hall of Fame. If you pass the eye test with me, you're in. The entire starting 22 from the Steelers in the 1970s should be in the HoF. Really enjoy your HoF series. Will keep checking them out. Voted up and shared.


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