The NFL’s top 13 safeties

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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.

13. Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers

(Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports)

Selected with the 17th overall pick in the 2018 draft out of Florida State, James made the Pro Bowl and grabbed All-Pro honors in his rookie season. But things got frustrating from there, as James missed all but five games in 2019, and he was out for the entire 2020 season due to injury. 2021 was a nice bounceback year, as James played in 15 games, saw 961 snaps, and allowed 35 catches on 58 targets for 312 yards, 191 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 71.9. That got him back to the Pro Bowl, which is quite the comeback story.

James was entirely versatile in Brandon Staley’s defense, playing 361 snaps in the box, 224 in the slot, 326 at free safety, 41 on the line, and nine at outside cornerback.

When healthy, James has the athleticism to follow any receiver anywhere on the field, and this interception of Denver’s Drew Lock on a target to receiver Kendall Hinton in Week 12 proves the point. James (No. 33) came down to match Hinton through his route, and once Lock released the ball outside of pressure, the ball was more James’ than it was Hinton’s.

James also had 13 total pressures last season, and he can get to the quarterback from any gap. This is an important part of his game. James was far from the only defender to get over on the Bengals’ offensive line last season, but this set of moves would make any edge-rusher happy.

James is in the final year of his rookie deal, and he’s also recovering from offseason labrum surgery. This is where the Chargers are with James’ future — if he’s healthy, he’s worth a top contract for the position. Hopefully, 2022 and beyond will see Derwin James with a clean bill, showing all of his impressive potential.

12. Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills

(Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports)

Hyde ranked seventh on our safety list last year after a 2020 season in which he allowed 15 catches on 27 targets for 143 yards, 46 yards after the catch, one touchdown, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 67.4. In 2021, Hyde was more opportunistic and more vulnerable, which puts him a bit below where he was before.

As one half of the NFL’s best safety tandem (along with Jordan Poyer, who you’ll see later on the list), Hyde played all over the field while Poyer played mostly free safety. Hyde had 278 snaps in the box, 185 in the slot, 628 at free safety, 51 at the line, and four at outside cornerback. And on all those snaps, he allowed 20 catches on 29 targets for 211 yards, 38 yards after the catch, four touchdowns, six interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 89.9. Not quite the shutdown performer he was in 2020, but Hyde was also responsible for many more takeaways.

Hyde made Mac Jones’ life particularly miserable, as the Patriots’ rookie quarterback gave up three picks to him — two in Week 16, and one in Buffalo’s wild-card win. The wild-card pick came with Hyde as the deep safety, and Nelson Agholor beating cornerback Levi Wallace downfield. That didn’t matter, because Hyde zoomed over to take the ball away.

Hyde was not as fortunate in the rematch against the Chiefs — the epic divisional round game that ended the Bills’ season. Here, in the red zone, Hyde was a tick late to cover the crosser, and the result was a touchdown. Hyde nearly caught up to deflect the pass, but that’s life in the NFL — one slow step, and you’re in trouble.

Overall, Hyde had a good season, and he belongs on this list. But if he can retain his 2020 excellence again, Buffalo’s secondary might just be the class of the league.

11. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers

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The Steelers recently made Fitzpatrick the NFL’s highest-paid safety in a monster contract extension, and Fitzpatrick has earned it all along. The former first-round pick of the Dolphins in 2018 was traded to Pittsburgh early in the 2019 season, and right away, Mike Tomlin and his staff decided to throw away the multi-position potential Fitzpatrick showed at both Alabama and in Miami in favor of guessing that he could become one of the league’s best free safeties.

Mission accomplished, as they say.

The Steelers’ defense was betwixt and between for all kinds of reasons in 2021, but Fitzpatrick still did his thing. He allowed 28 catches on 44 targets for 416 yards, 162 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 90.7. Not the epic season he had in 2020 (nine catches allowed on 20 targets for 130 yards, 22 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, four interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 60.4), but that defense wasn’t what it was in 2020, either, and Fitzpatrick lost time due to a bout with COVID.

When Fitzpatrick was on point, as he was on this deep deflection of a Lamar Jackson pass to Marquise Brown in Week 18, he showed every bit of the ability he’s always had to bait and wait, and then speed in to make the play.

What may have looked like an “off year” for Fitzpatrick should turn itself around to whatever degree it needs to in 2022 and beyond. The Steelers are obviously banking on that.

10. Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans Saints

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2021 was not a great season for the Chiefs’ defense. Kansas City ranked 24th in Football Outsiders’ opponent-adjusted DVOA metrics, and 16th against the pass. There were times when Steve Spagnuolo’s squad just looked off, and Mathieu’s frustration with that in his final season with the Chiefs was… pretty evident.

Both Mathieu and Sorensen are now in New Orleans (maybe a bit more vetting would have been good), but even with all his frustration, Mathieu was still a great safety when asked to fill that role. Overall, he allowed 39 catches on 51 targets for 397 yards, 241 yards after the catch, three touchdowns, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 93.3. Not a bad season, and not all his fault by a wide margin. Tape showed that Mathieu was still very much on the ball, figuratively and literally, and one can only wait to see what he does in Dennis Allen’s Saints defense — the one that ranked third overall and fourth against the pass in FO’s metrics.

Mathieu is a force from anywhere on the field, and it’s his combination of acumen and fearlessness that makes him so dangerous. Ask Jalen Hurts, who’s probably still wondering how Mathieu got a deflection out of a blitz on this pass to Kenneth Gainwell.

Mathieu was the Chiefs’ glue guy all along in that secondary. Expect the very same in New Orleans.

9. Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks

Quandre Diggs
Quandre Diggs

(Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)

Last season, only Trevon Moehrig of the Raiders played more snaps at free safety (1,116) than Diggs’ 1,078. When you’re on a team that plays a lot of single-high coverage (as the Seahawks do), and your strong safety is iffy in coverage (as Jamal Adams is), that’s a lot of responsibility. Diggs was just fine with that, allowing 21 catches on 30 targets for 251 yards, 67 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 77.9.

You’d expect a high volume of deep targets in that math, and it checks out. Diggs was targeted seven times on passes of 20 or more air yards, allowing no completions. One reason Diggs is so effective as a deep defender is that he has the confidence in his quickness to lay in wait for the route to develop, and the acceleration to jump to the ball before the receiver can get to it.

This interception against Matthew Stafford on a throw to Cooper Kupp in Week 15 is a perfect example. Diggs is in the deep third in Cover-3, Kupp beats cornerback Blessuan Austin with a quick stutter, and this is an easy touchdown… until Diggs swoops in for the pick.

The Seahawks, who originally picked Diggs up from the Lions on a 2019 trade that can only be viewed as comically bad for Detroit in retrospect, finally made Diggs somewhat whole in March with a new three-year, $40 million deal including $27 million guaranteed. That puts Diggs in pretty good financial company among the NFL’s safeties, though the Jamal Adams contract is a comparative black eye. Without Diggs, Seattle’s secondary would have had very little to go on in 2021. That might also be the case in 2022.

8. Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens

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Williams, who signed a five-year, $70 million contract with the Ravens in March that included $17.080 million guaranteed, didn’t make our safety list last year. This would be consistent with his year-to-year inconsistency.

Fortunately for Williams, he secured the bag with an outstanding 2021 season, and we’ll just have to wait and see how things play out in another even year. But in 2021, few deep safeties were better. Williams allowed eight completions on 16 targets for 112 yards, 29 yards after the catch, two interceptions, one touchdown, and that opponent passer rating of 54.2.

On this deep pass deflection against the Eagles, watch how Williams (No. 43) lies in wait on the Jalen Hurts scramble drill, and then crosses the field at blinding speed to break up the deep pass to running back Miles Sanders. There’s no way Hurts could have expected Williams to catch up with this.

And because Williams is so quick and easy in his deep transitions, he’s great at getting in place for deep deflections. Cowboys receiver CeeDee Lamb found that out on this play.

The Ravens obviously aren’t too concerned about the year-to-year variance, and with box safety Chuck Clark and first-round do-it-all rookie Kyle Hamilton on board, Baltimore may have the NFL’s best and most interesting three-safety group. That’s a big deal in an era where all kinds of coverages make up the norm.

7. Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

(AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

One of the better small-school players of his era, Byard — selected by the Titans in the third round of the 2016 draft out of Middle Tennessee State — has been an outstanding safety in all of his NFL seasons… except for one. 2020 was rough for Byard and Tennessee’s defense, and he told me why last August. Dean Pees was no longer the Titans’ defensive coordinator, and a hodgepodge of undefined coaches proved to be a poor replacement.

“Honestly, I think it was a multitude of a lot of different things.” Byard said when I asked him what went wrong in 2020. “Personnel at times. I think a lot of it had to do with a lack of coordination within the defense. If it was the pass rush, and the coverage on the back end. I think one of the biggest issues last year were our third-down woes. When you talk about being a great defense, great defenses are great on third downs. When it’s third-and-medium, third-and-long, as a defense in this room, we are supposed to win in that scenario. Last season, too many times, we didn’t get off the field on third-and-long. When that happens, you get longer drives by the offense, more yards, and more points. So, I think as a defense this year, that’s been our biggest emphasis — being coordinated on third down with the pass rush and the secondary. If we can get off the field on third down better than last year, our defensive stats are going to rise dramatically. I hope that will take us over the top with the explosive offense we have.”

In 2021, the Titans made former outside linebackers coach Shane Bowen their actual defensive coordinator, and things started to get better, especially for Byard. After allowing 37 catches on 51 targets for 409 yards, 160 air yards, three touchdowns, one interception, and an opponent passer rating of 107.4 (a career high) in 2020, Byard turned that around. Last season, he gave up 33 catches on 52 attempts for 372 yards, 211 air yards, six touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 83.7.

We should talk about the six touchdowns allowed, because that is a thing. The Titans had some communication issues in their secondary last season, and Byard (No. 31) got caught up in that to a point. At other times… well, guys get beat. On this 17-yard touchdown pass from Kyler Murray to DeAndre Hopkins in Week 1 of the 2021 season? Sometimes, you just have to tip your hat.

Byard had another of his picks the week before against the Colts, but this red zone deflection on a pass from Carson Wentz to Michael Pittman may have been more impressive. In situations like this, you want your safety to match and disrupt a crossing receiver (there are examples in this article of that not happening), and Byard has that covered in this case.

With another year of coaching consistency (and perhaps fewer communication snags in the secondary), Byard might be even better in 2022.

6. Xavier McKinney, New York Giants

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Dave Gettleman’s tenure as the Giants’ general manager from 2018 through 2021 was relentlessly pilloried, and justifiably so. But selecting McKinney in the second round of the 2020 draft out of Alabama? We’ve got to give Gettleman at least an assist there. Because in his second NFL season, McKinney became an outstanding deep-third safety in both single-high and two-deep looks, as well as a top-tier route-jumper.

The stats told the story — in 2021, McKinney gave up 35 catches on 47 targets for 376 yards, 158 yards, three touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 79.2.

Against the Raiders in Week 9, McKinney came down to linebacker depth in a switch, and fooled Derek Carr on a quick out to Hunter Renfrow, taking the prize to the house.

It will be interesting to see how McKinney continues to develop his game under new defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale, who has a recent history in Baltimore of bringing out the best in his defensive backs. But make no mistake — McKinney already has every tool you want in a premier safety.

5. Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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The son of Antione Winfield, who excelled as a cornerback and slot defender from 1999 through 2012 with the Bills and Vikings, Winfield Jr. found himself selected by the Buccaneers in the second round of the 2020 draft. Based on his college tape, that was a bit of an underdraft (Winfield had first-round talent all over that tape), but size and injury concerns made it complicated. It all worked out in the end, as Winfield helped the Bucs win the Super Bowl in his rookie season, and improved exponentially in his second NFL campaign. Last season, the 5-foot-9, 203-pound Winfield allowed 29 catches on 38 targets for 269 yards, 137 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, two interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 73.2.

Winfield is the Bucs’ primary free safety in Todd Bowles’ defense, but he can also run point in the box and the slot, and he’s an excellent blitzer. But let’s start with the coverage — specifically, the deep coverage. Winfield was a real problem for opposing offenses there, allowing two catches on targets of 20 or more air yards for 48 yards, and one of his interceptions. That came against the Colts in Week 12, and the way in which Winfield (No. 31) shadowed receiver Michael Pittman on this one was teach tape.

And if you’re a running back assigned to provide protection against a blitzing Winfield, you had better have downed all your Wheaties that morning. The Bucs had the NFL’s highest blitz rate in 2021, and Winfield is one reason Bowles and his staff are able to pull that off so well.

4. Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers

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Northern Illinois has a pretty nice NFL alumni list. Ryan Diem, Hollis Thomas, Michael Turner, Doug Free, Kenny Golladay… and we should certainly have Ward, selected by the 49ers with the 30th overall pick in the 2014 draft. Over time, Ward has transitioned from a slot/box defender to more of a pure free safety — last season, he had 652 snaps at free, 270 in the box, and 252 in the slot — and 2021 marked his best season to date in that particular role. Ward allowed 23 catches on 41 targets for 298 yards, 75 yards after the catch, one touchdown, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 56.8. That’s far better than in any other season in his career — Ward’s opponent passer rating of 102.5 in 2015 was his previous best.

Ward (No. 1) has developed into a great deep safety with his turns and transitions, as he showed on this deep deflection on a pass from Jalen Hurts to Jalen Reagor in Week 2…

If you’re into that kind of thing, well, here’s Ward beating Brown to the boundary for another forced incompletion.

Ward was a perfect fit in first-year defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans’ playbook. Expect more of the same this season.

3. Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

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There aren’t many players in pro football history who have had Pro Bowl seasons at both cornerback and safety. Ronnie Lott is the most renowned exception — Charles Woodson would be another. Like Lott and Woodson, McCourty was drafted in the first round by his original team (the Patriots), like Lott and Woodson, McCourty showed out as a cornerback in his rookie season, and like Lott and Woodson, McCourty has continued and extended his effectiveness as a safety later in his career.

McCourty isn’t the headbanger Lott was (few have been), and he’s not quite as much a moveable chess piece as Woodson was later in his career (though he certainly could be if asked). McCourty’s superpower is deep range coverage, and 2021 may have been his best season. He allowed 12 catches on 24 targets for 159 yards, 63 yards after the catch, no touchdowns, three interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 31.8.

McCourty spent a bit of time in the box and the slot last season, but his primary role was to hold things down in the deep third, especially in New England’s single-high looks. Because when you have Devin McCourty patrolling deep, you don’t need a lot else back there.

Here, Carson Wentz thinks he has the short crosser to Zach Pascal, because McCourty is looking like he’s dropping back to take any vertical stuff. Wrong. McCourty read everything (as is his wont), crashed down, and came up with the interception from linebacker Jamie Collins’ drop into coverage.

Incredibly, McCourty has made just two Pro Bowls in his career (three second-team All Pro nods), which will sadly impact his Hall of Fame consideration when his career is over. But based on his consistency and versatility, a few more years at this level should buttress his case. For now, he’ll have to settle for the fact that’s he’s one of the best defensive backs of his era.

2. Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

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Simmons was our No. 1 safety last season, and the only reason he didn’t take the title again was the greatness of Buffalo’s Jordan Poyer. Because Simmons had a much better season in coverage last year than he did in 2020 — last season, he allowed 29 catches on 47 targets for 353 yards, 184 yards after the catch, two touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 59.4. That, as opposed to the 40 catches on 52 targets he allowed in 2020 for 420 yards, 201 yards after the catch, seven touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of 99.8. Simmons cleaned things up as a red zone defender, and that showed up to Denver’s great relief.

Simmons was also just as versatile on the field in 2021 as he had been in previous years, with 310 snaps in the box, 191 in the slot, 639 at free safety, nine on the defensive line, and three at outside corner.

Wherever you need a safety to line up and be great, Simmons has it on lock. This interception against Jared Goff and Lions in Week 14 shows just how well Simmons can cover and carry anywhere on the field. Goff tried to hit tight end Brock Wright on an out route against Denver’s Cover-3, and Simmons just eclipsed the whole thing.

Simmons is also a fine tackler and blitzer when the need arises, but his coverage ability is what really stood out in 2021.

1. Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills

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And now, we enter the realm of the truly preposterous. Poyer is one half of the NFL’s best safety duo with Micah Hyde, which may be why he’s serially underrated. There’s also the perception that he’s not a great run defender, but when you have a deep defender like this, dinging him for that is very much like complaining because you can’t tow anything with your Lamborghini.

Last season, Poyer allowed 13 catches on 28 targets for 61 yards, 40 air yards, no touchdowns, five interceptions, and an opponent passer rating of,,,

,,,wait for it…

13.7. 

Folks, that just doesn’t happen. Among safeties who played at least 50% of their teams’ defensive snaps in 2021, Devin McCourty ranked second with a 31.8 opponent passer rating allowed. Marcus Williams ranked third at 54.2, just so you know what we’re dealing with here. As an NFL quarterback, you’d be three times better off throwing the ball in to Section 320 than you would be in targeting Poyer. This came after a couple of seasons in which Poyer was more exposed in coverage, but the tape seems to show that this isn’t a one-year wonder.

Poyer was effective all over the field, but he was especially effective when playing deep. On targets of 20 or more air yards, he allowed no catches on five targets… and had one interception. This pass breakup against Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski in Week 14 shows how great Poyer is at all that. Poyer velcroed himself to Gronk through the end of the route, and had the presence of mind to stick a hand out to eliminate any possibility of a catch.

As far as Poyer’s ability to play the run? You can ask Washington’s Antonio Gibson how No. 21 gets that done.

Poyer is the NFL’s best safety in deep and intermediate coverage, and he’s better at everything else than you may think. That’s why he’s at the top of this list, and No. 1 here really isn’t close.

Honorable mentions

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals

Jalen Thompson, Arizona Cardinals

Jeremy Chinn, Carolina Panthers

Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals

Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings

Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers

Jevin Holland, Miami Dolphins

Adrian Phillips, New England Patriots

Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots

Amani Hooker, Tennessee Titans

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