Best Safeties in the NFL 2023: Derwin James Leads the Pack With Minkah Fitzpatrick Close Behind

Modern NFL teams are moving to coverage-first defenses and are replacing linebackers with safeties, making it all the more important that NFL teams figure out who the best safeties in the NFL are. With the explosion of dime and penny defenses, a versatile, high-level safety can change the character and effectiveness of a unit.

That’s why the top safeties in the NFL can play more than one role — gone are the days of true box safeties and single-high center fielders. Now, the best safeties in the NFL need to rush the passer, stop the run, win in man coverage, and patrol a deep third of the field. That’s why the best safety in the NFL can do all of those things, enabling the defense around him to do anything they want.

Who’s the Best Safety in the NFL?

Given all the things he’s capable of, Los Angeles Chargers DB Derwin James is the best safety in the NFL. James is simultaneously an elite pass rusher and man-coverage defender as a safety, complemented by high-level performance as a run defender and in zone coverage. His size, fluidity, and speed give him range and a remarkable capacity to take on blockers in the run game or clog up passing lanes.

Not only that, James’ skill set makes him a matchup-eraser. Instead of the defense being subject to the whims of a superstar tight end, pass-catching running back, or big-slot receiver, they can focus on what they do best while James locks down the opposing offense’s biggest threat.

In 2022, James ranked in the top 10 among safeties in sacks, pressures, run stops, and yards allowed per target. That final feat is remarkable, given how often he’s matched up against the opponent’s top target. His versatility has become a skeleton key that allows the coverage and front to do some truly interesting stuff that can throw offenses entirely out of sync.

Safety Rankings 2-25

2) Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers

Moving from Miami to Pittsburgh has seemingly turned Minkah Fitzpatrick from a good safety to a great one, and he’s found consistency between highlight plays. Before, Fitzpatrick was good for some elite stretches of play surrounded by some mediocre snaps. Now, he brings it every single snap and has been unstoppable this year.

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Though the Steelers’ defense struggled at points in 2022, especially without T.J. Watt up front, Fitzpatrick has played at a high level regardless of the supporting cast around him. He ranked second in the NFL in forced incompletion rate when targeted, and his four interceptions last year made it tough for even elite passers to look his way.

3) Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills

The Bills faced incredibly poor injury luck at defensive back, and an early-season loss of Micah Hyde was a significant one. One of the best safeties in the NFL in 2021, Hyde demonstrated an ability to close down against the run and blitz, but he primarily specialized in coverage.

His role as a deep safety helped the rest of Buffalo’s defense play aggressively without too much worry. They had to change that approach after the first two games of the season and couldn’t sustain it after the Von Miller injury. Hyde was a big part of the Bills’ defensive structure, and his impact was enormous.

4) Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

Despite making two All-Pro teams, it seems like Kevin Byard has flown under the radar. The 2017 NFL interceptions leader proved in subsequent seasons that his coverage capability wasn’t a fluke — he’s been a high-level center fielder every year he’s been in the NFL.

But what puts him up here — aside from being the best center fielder in the NFL — is his increasing capability against the run. Byard doesn’t enter the box often, typically acting as the force player instead of the cleanup defender. But when he does approach ball carriers, he rarely misses. Byard has one of the lowest missed tackle rates among safeties over the last three years.

5) Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Following in the footsteps of his father (a cornerback who played for both the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings on the outside and in the slot), Antoine Winfield Jr. has done an excellent job manning up against slot receivers while still playing as a traditional safety who hits harder than many linebackers in the NFL. Those hard hits don’t come at the cost of missed tackles.

In previous years, Winfield played many more snaps as a rangy center fielder than a slot defender. And he was excellent at keeping the deep middle clean, only rarely allowing deep receptions and often demonstrating perfect coverage in those moments.

But the Buccaneers had him play in the slot much more often in 2022 — and he thrived. This is both because it highlights another one of Winfield’s many skills and also allows his pass-rush prowess to shine.

6) Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

Justin Simmons could thrive at safety in any era, whether that’s the hard-hitting run defenders of the 1970s and 1980s, the deep Cover 2 safeties of the 2000s, or rangy single-high defenders in the 2010s. In the 2020s, where safeties are asked to change roles almost every play, Simmons excels. Denver has asked him to play all those roles and hasn’t had any problems adapting to those demands.

Still, he’s best as a high safety, given his prowess in coverage. Over the last three years, Simmons is tied for first place with Harrison Smith and Quandre Diggs in total interceptions generated when playing as a high-coverage zone defender. That insurance allows the Broncos to feel comfortable putting together dynamic rush plans and allow Patrick Surtain II to shine as a man-coverage corner.

7) Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers’ Talanoa Hufanga might have been the most impactful safety in the league in 2022. His play gave San Francisco the ability to field premier players up front, in the second level, and in the secondary.

Hufanga’s knack for finding the ball, whether in the air or the hands of a ball carrier, has been tremendous for the 49ers, as their defense manufactured ways for them to win despite season-ending injuries to two quarterbacks.

Hufanga is an excellent defender after only two years in the league. His consistency has been an issue, and he played better in the first half of 2022 than in the second half. Between his highlights are some miscues and occasional mistakes. They’re certainly worth it, but there’s room for improvement.

8) Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills

At the beginning of 2022, Buffalo sported the best safety tandem in the NFL, with Jordan Poyer and Hyde holding down the fort. However, an injury to Poyer took him off the field for a period of time.

Poyer’s ability to click and close in zone coverage is up there with the best in the NFL. His turnover production in 2022 didn’t match his 2021 season, but that’s not a big deal. He still had four picks, forced quarterbacks to throw short, and had the highest forced incompletion rate in the league at the position. He’s a great run defender too, but we don’t see much of that, given how high up the Bills ask him to play.

9) C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Detroit Lions

After finishing the year tied for the interception lead — after missing five games — C.J. Gardner-Johnson re-established himself as a force in the NFL as a versatile slot cover corner and safety hybrid. His ability to alter the nature of Philadelphia’s defense was evident when he was forced to miss games, and the Eagles took missteps despite their phenomenal pass rush.

Gardner-Johnson can play multiple roles at safety and play them all well, but his ability to erase normal offensive matchups remains the biggest reason he lands on the list.

10) Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals

After signing an enormous deal with the Cardinals, Baker turned on the jets and played better after his contract was signed than before it. Baker might be the best example of what the Cardinals have been trying to do defensively, with several players capable of playing multiple positions and confusing the offense with their roles and alignments.

While many of those players didn’t work out, Baker has demonstrated that the right technique, athleticism, balance, and willingness can produce that kind of versatile defender that can play a deep zone, line up on the line of scrimmage, or stop the run from the box. He’s still best in the box, and his range isn’t quite that of a high-level center fielder. But his value isn’t limited because of that. The fact that the Cardinals can ask him to do anything means they always have a tool in their toolbox.

11) Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans Saints

Tyrann Mathieu was a bit of a mold-breaker and, later, a model for versatile safeties when coming out of LSU. His ability to play center field, in the box, and as a nickel corner gave NFL defenses the template for how to use players like Antoine Winfield Jr., Minkah Fitzpatrick, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson. Mathieu has lost a step but is still one of the most instinctive and fluid nickel safeties in the NFL.

12) Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens

Best positioned as a pure free safety, Marcus Williams doesn’t have the athletic upside of some other players on the list but has one of the quickest triggers in the NFL and an advanced understanding of NFL defenses.

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He’s perhaps the best pure free safety in the NFL, but his limited versatility drops him outside of the top 10. That’s why he has one of the best marks in yards allowed per snap in coverage and worst marks in run stops per run defense snap.

13) Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings

Once one of the most versatile safeties in the NFL, the Vikings reduced Harrison Smith’s role in 2022 — perhaps a mistake. Still one of the best blitzers in the NFL, he can play anywhere. But his reduced capability as a center fielder has hurt his value relative to some of the other safeties on the list. He’s still one of the most useful and intelligent players at the position.

14) Jessie Bates III, Atlanta Falcons

Like Marcus Williams, Jessie Bates III is best served at the free safety position. He has a bit more capability in the box than Williams, but his consistency at either position leaves something to be desired. Nevertheless, his value on the back end is hard to replicate, and he does a good job forcing teams to throw short.

15) Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens

After a rocky draft process and an underwhelming start to his rookie year, Kyle Hamilton finished the season as one of the best safeties in the NFL. That inconsistency is worth noting, but Hamilton helped his case by playing well enough as both a box and free safety and played a significant amount of time in the back half as a capable slot corner.

16) Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins

Jevon Holland is a rare type of safety — he’s a great run defender from the free safety position and great at shutting down yards after the catch for receivers. It gives Miami a lot of options for dealing with YAC-based options, though Holland’s ability as a true rangy free safety isn’t pristine. The speed of play in the box might prevent him from being a threat there, but it’s worth exploring if he has that versatility. For now, he ranks 16th as a limited but talented free safety.

17) Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks

After missing all of 2022, Jamal Adams might slip from the minds of some NFL fans, but he’s one of the best strong safeties in the league. His coverage is only alright, but his run defense and blitzing capability are top-notch, and he does a good job preventing mid-level crossers and clogging passing lanes. There is probably not a better pure strong safety in the NFL than Adams, even if that skill set isn’t the most valuable one to have.

18) Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears

Every version of the Bears’ defense has found different ways to use Eddie Jackson, and the only time he’s ever faltered is when they used him in uncreative ways. He can do everything they ask of him, whether at free safety, strong safety, slot corner, wide corner, blitzer, or even kick coverage. He doesn’t do any of them at an elite level, which is why he ranks where he does, but he does them all at a pretty high level, and that’s useful.

19) Marcus Maye, New Orleans Saints

The Saints have replaced Marcus Williams with Marcus Maye, and though it’s a downgrade, it’s not bad value for money. The problem is that the Saints are using him like Williams, when Maye is not as good of a free safety but is a substantially better switch safety, with the ability to rotate into the box or play in the slot. He’s got the range and build of a primary free safety, and that’s what he’s best at, but the Saints need to use his other skills more often to maximize him.

20) Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers

Jimmie Ward is pretty similar to Eddie Jackson, he’s just used the right way much more often. He’s a very capable free safety and high-level nickel corner who has now seen himself slow down just a step, placing him 20th instead of 10th. His versatility still allows smart defensive coordinators to design clever coverage schemes that take advantage of what he does, but there’s a little bit less he can do nowadays compared to before.

21) Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks

A rangy free safety that complements Jamal Adams well in Seattle, Quandre Diggs does a very good job finding the ball and ripping it away, but he sometimes gambles a little bit too much to be considered an elite player. He can do some of the other things asked of high-level players, so it’s not as if he’s pigeonholed in that role, but his tendency to be slightly slow off the snap in the box means he’s best suited where Seattle plays him.

22) Duron Harmon, Las Vegas Raiders

For the last several years, Duron Harmon has bounced around the league after a successful stint in New England. That’s not entirely his fault, as Detroit overvalued him and Atlanta misused him, but the Raiders seem to know what they’re doing with the intelligent hard-hitter.

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Like Marcus Williams, he’s a pure free safety that leverages his football awareness more than his athleticism. His highs aren’t as high, and his lows can be a bit lower, but he’s overall a great value to have on the back end.

23) Xavier McKinney, New York Giants

The Giants took a player who, at Alabama, played three different defensive back positions and asked him to focus on playing free safety. It worked, and McKinney played extremely well amidst an injury-riddled secondary, but hopefully, New York frees him up to do more, given his background. If he can bring his run defense to bear, he can cover up for the fact that he’s merely a very good center fielder with excellence as a box safety too.

24) Kamren Curl, Washington Commanders

Still a somewhat inconsistent player in coverage, Kamren Curl has demonstrated he can still be a big asset in the passing game, with his ability to deter coverage with excellent instincts and knowledge of opposing offenses. He still excels closer to the action as a run defender or man coverage defender, where Washington used him a bit more often, but he has a lot more versatility than people were expecting.

25) Rodney McLeod, Cleveland Browns

Now near the back end of his career, Rodney McLeod has evolved into a multi-capable safety who can either lay the wood or get his hands on the ball. He excels in the intermediate middle taking out crossers, but he can play the high center field, given his ability to read the play and get into position. He can still get beat by deceptive offenses and faster receivers, but he’s definitely a big asset.

Top Remaining Safeties | Ranked 26-32

26) Jaquan Brisker, Chicago Bears
27) Jayron Kearse, Dallas Cowboys
28) Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
29) Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
30) Richie Grant, Atlanta Falcons
31) Kareem Jackson, Denver Broncos
32) Ryan Neal, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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