2023 NFL Free Agent Rankings: Safety

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bengals safety Jessie Bates III (30) catches a pass during warmups prior to the game against the Atlanta Falcons at Paycor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

With the new league year just around the corner, it's time for all 32 NFL teams to turn their attention to NFL free agency in a bid to improve their rosters for a new campaign.

Here are the top free agents at safety, taken from PFF's free agency rankings

Editor's note: For up-to-the-minute updates based on everything we’re hearing around the NFL, go to PFF's free agency rankings, where you can sort by position, team needs, and more all offseason long.

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1. S Jessie Bates III

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

It appears far more likely Bates will reach unrestricted free agency this time around after Cincinnati placed the franchise tag on him last offseason and never made a serious multi-year offer. 

His 76.8 PFF grade this season ranked 13th at the position, and his 84.8 run-defense grade was a top-five mark. This year marked Bates' fifth 1,000-plus-snap season in as many years as an NFL player, pairing his above-average skill set with remarkable reliability. He ranks behind only Kevin Byard in regular-season snaps played among safeties since 2018.

2. S Jordan Poyer

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Poyer was seeking an extension before the 2022 season, and his performance this year goes a long way in proving why he was worthy of a new deal, but various injuries have also illustrated perhaps why Buffalo was wary of committing to the 31-year-old beyond 2022. That said, Poyer logged 950-plus snaps in every season from 2017-21, so his toughness and willingness to play through ailments cannot be questioned.

The 2022 campaign marked Poyer's fourth consecutive regular season earning coverage grades and overall grades above 70.0, with a lot of turnover in the Bills' secondary throughout the season, most notably with his safety partner Micah Hyde lost for the year. Poyer’s 92.1 coverage grade since 2020 is the best among safeties. He still has good football left to be played. 

3. S C.J. Gardner-Johnson

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

The Eagles traded for Gardner-Johnson this past offseason after he couldn’t come to terms with the New Orleans Saints on a contract extension, and it was somewhat surprising the aggressive Eagles didn’t extend him right then and there. Nevertheless, Gardner-Johnson got off to a strong start, and his six interceptions tied for the most in the NFL. An injury knocked him out for five weeks toward the end of the regular season, but he returned for Week 18 and the playoffs.

The former Saints slot cornerback’s versatility was on full display in Week 18 against the New York Giants fresh off injured reserve, logging a few key snaps in the slot with Avonte Maddox out with an injury and allowing just two receptions for five yards to go along with two defensive stops. The interesting thing with his market will be where his next team — if he doesn’t stay in Philadelphia — projects him in the lineup, with safeties earning a lot more on average than slot cornerbacks. 

4. S Vonn Bell

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Bell has been a somewhat under-the-radar field general on the back end who serves as a glue guy for his defense in his career, and 2022 was no different as Bengals cornerbacks went down with injuries all year long. A stout run defender, Bell boasts an 88.7 run-defense grade over the past five seasons that ranks eighth best among safeties. He did record the highest rate of missed tackles in his career in 2022 (14.8%), but his track record speaks for itself. 

Bell can hold his own in coverage, as well, earning his second consecutive coverage grade above 65.0. He’s a very solid all-around player who would be a nice fit with any team. 

5. S Jimmie Ward

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Ward was forced to switch positions from safety to slot cornerback this past season, a decision he apparently expressed displeasure about to head coach Kyle Shanahan, but he quickly acclimated and put together a very strong stretch of play over the second half of the year. 

From Week 8 through the end of the season, Ward’s 78.0 coverage grade in the slot ranked 11th. He’s also earned back-to-back 90.0-plus run-defense grades as one of the better tacklers among defensive backs. Ward will likely look to return to playing safety, but his ability to cover in the slot is an added bonus, and he appears to still have some juice left in the tank wherever he lines up.

6. S Julian Love

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Love offers a diverse skill set as a defensive back who can serve as a ball hawk in the deep third and make plays down in the box. He was also a player the New York Giants trusted in the slot. He played by far the most snaps in his career in 2022 (1,006) and earned a career-high 71.5 coverage grade in the process.

Love is a good tackler in space, with his 80 tackles in 2022 the seventh most among safeties and his six missed tackles the second fewest among safeties in the top 25 in total tackles.

7. S Taylor Rapp

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Rapp was solid if unspectacular over his rookie contract after the Los Angeles Rams selected him in the second round in 2019, and he earned career-high grades against the run (82.3) and in coverage (72.9) in 2022. Los Angeles was comfortable lining him up all over, and he’s one of those players who performs OK in various alignments but is not particularly great at any one thing. 

One thing that has been consistent: Rapp is a sure tackler, never missing more than 8.7% of potential tackles in a season. His 148 tackles over the past two seasons rank ninth among safeties.

8. S Juan Thornhill

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Thornhill has been up and down over the start of his career, prone to the occasional missed tackle and coverage lapse. But to his credit, he has been to the Super Bowl three times in four seasons. From Week 16 through the Super Bowl, Thornhill’s 90.3 grade was the top mark among safeties.

Thornhill has played at least 850 snaps in each of his first four seasons and offers a high floor of play on the back end.

9. S Donovan Wilson

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Wilson is a physical, downhill safety who packs a serious punch once he gets a full head of steam, delivering a few crushing blows this season with his 6-foot, 204-pound frame. In 2022, Wilson became a full-time starter and logged a career-high 959 snaps, earning a 72.9 run-defense grade and racking up 77 tackles, which tied for ninth among safeties.

Wilson can sometimes over-pursue and miss a tackle, but a prospective team will take that along with his tenacious desire to drop the hammer. He also contributed 13 quarterback pressures and five sacks on just 33 pass-rush snaps, displaying an innate ability to seemingly get shot out of a cannon on the occasional blitz.

Last but certainly not least, while more of a box defender, Wilson isn’t a liability in coverage when lined up deep, earning three straight grades above 64.0 in coverage.

10. S Adrian Amos

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Amos had long been one of the most consistent, reliable safeties across the NFL, allowing an explosive reception on just 1% of coverage snaps over five seasons from 2017-21 and forcing an incompletion on 17.3% of targets into his coverage over the span, which ranked tied for 21st. He took a step back in 2022, earning a 54.2 grade — a career-low mark by more than 15 grading points.

That said, betting on a bounce-back 2023 campaign for a versatile defensive back who has logged roughly 1,000 snaps in five straight seasons could be worthwhile. While Amos may not have the highest ceiling, before 2022 his floor was very, very high.

11. S Rodney McLeod

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

The 11-year veteran is coming off a career year in 2022, logging more than 1,000 snaps and earning career-high overall (80.1) and coverage (85.3) grades at 32 years old.

McLeod primarily used to line up in the deep third, but he logged a career-high 527 snaps down in the box and was so effective that he played instead of the young recent draft picks who were initially given starting jobs and expected to take over long term.

12. S Marcus Epps

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Epps became a full-time starter in 2022 and logged a career-high 1,095 regular season snaps, earning his second consecutive run-defense grade above 80.0, with his 84.4 mark in 2022 eighth among safeties. Epps' 77 tackles in 2022 were tied for 11th-most at the position, and his run-defense grade of 90.2 over the last two seasons ranks third at the position. Coverage is a bit of a different story.

While Epps and C.J. Gardner-Johnson were successful in 2022 because of their ability to line up in single- or two-high alignments — with more disguising of coverages from pre-snap to post-snap this season — Epps earned a career-low 44.7 coverage grade. He can use his size to match up with tight ends as a curl/flat defender in the box but is not as confident in the deep third, where he's prone to the occasional blown coverage.

13. S Nick Scott

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

14. S Duron Harmon

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Harmon played on his third team in three seasons in 2022, reuniting with Josh McDaniels and Dave Ziegler on the Las Vegas Raiders to play more than 1,000 snaps and earn a 77.6 coverage grade, his best mark since 2017. Harmon's 67 tackles and 11 defensive stops were both career highs in his 10th NFL season, and he's shown the ability to almost never come off the field after the New England Patriots rotated him in and out more. He's a veteran leader who has always had a nose for the football, with multiple interceptions in six straight seasons.

15. S DeShon Elliott

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

Elliott has quietly earned PFF grades above 65.0 in each of the past three seasons, posting grades above 60.0 as a run defender and in coverage over those years, as well. He recorded a career-high 76 tackles and 20 defensive stops in 2022 to go along with a career-low 6.2% missed tackle rate.

He has displayed some solid versatility, logging over 100 snaps as the slot defender in 2022, his most in a season by a decent margin. He's a very solid player not generating much buzz, perhaps in part due to the poor Lions defense from this past season, but he could be a strong addition for not much cash.

16. S John Johnson III

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

17. S Tashaun Gipson Sr.

*Re-signed with 49ers

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

18. S Kareem Jackson

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

19. S Nasir Adderley

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

20. S Mike Edwards

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings

21. S Terrell Edmunds

Contract projection: Available in PFF's free agency rankings


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