NFL News & Analysis

Best safeties available in the 2023 NFL Draft and free agency

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

• Jessie Bates III among the best 2023 free agents: Bates comes in at No. 4 in PFF's free-agent rankings and should command top-of-market money.

• Alabama's Brian Branch endures tough combine: Branch remains PFF's top safety in the 2023 NFL Draft despite a combine performance that did nothing to help his stock.

• Titans' Kevin Byard a potential trade target: The ball hawk has been a consistent presence in Tennessee's secondary since being drafted in 2016.

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Safeties are the quarterback of the secondary, often responsible for getting their unit in the right coverage and communicating to the other coverage players. On top of their coverage responsibilities, they also must fit run lanes and gaps while not getting exposed on the backend.

It’s a good free agency class for safeties but a bit of a weaker group in the 2023 NFL Draft, albeit one with some intriguing Day 2 options. Here’s a run-through of the best options.

Best Free Agents (rank among PFF’s top 100 free agents)

  1. Jessie Bates III (4)
  2. Jordan Poyer (19)
  3. C.J. Gardner-Johnson (25)
  4. Vonn Bell (49)
  5. Jimmie Ward (51)
  6. Julian Love (63)
  7. Taylor Rapp (64)
  8. Juan Thornhill (69)
  9. Donovan Wilson (75)
  10. Adrian Amos (82)

Jessie Bates III has been one of the NFL's best safeties over his career, and while his elite 90.1 grade with the Bengals in 2020 was a career high, he still ranked fourth in PFF WAR at the position in 2022 while boasting a top-five run-defense grade (84.8). At 26 years old, Bates has several years of potential high-level play to give on a second contract.

Jordan Poyer’s age will likely provide a discount to whichever team signs him, but he remains a high-quality safety. Poyer took a step back in 2022 and missed some time to injury, but his 89.3 coverage grade since 2020 is the 12th best at the position. C.J. Gardner-Johnson recorded a career-high six interceptions in 2022 and was a physical force for the NFC champion Eagles.

Vonn Bell has been ultra-consistent for the Bengals across three seasons with the team, grading between 69.3 and 72.1 in that span. He ranks in the top 25 in both run-defense and coverage grades during that timeframe.

Jimmie Ward, like Poyer, will come at a discount due to his age. He was forced to play the slot in 2022, but he did so at a very high level, despite missing several games. In 2021, Ward ranked fifth in PFF WAR while proving to be a versatile chess piece. He played the majority of his snaps at free safety but also saw significant snaps in the box and in the slot.

Picked two spots apart at the end of the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft, Taylor Rapp and Juan Thornhill both had career years in 2022 but have been average to below-average players for their careers. They ranked 21st and 22nd, respectively, in PFF WAR this past season, and both represent high-floor, low-ceiling options in this class.

Best Safeties in the 2023 NFL Draft (PFF Big Board rank)

  1. Brian Branch, Alabama (14)
  2. Antonio Johnson, Texas A&M (47)
  3. Sydney Brown, Illinois (57)
  4. Jammie Robinson, Florida State (63)
  5. Jordan Battle, Alabama (73)
  6. Christopher Smith, Georgia (94)
  7. JL Skinner, Boise State (110)
  8. Ronnie Hickman, Ohio State (116)
  9. Ji'Ayir Brown, Penn State (123)
  10. Quindell Johnson, Memphis (157)

Brian Branch highlights the draft class as the only first-round prospect. A versatile chess piece, Branch is most comfortable in the slot but also excellent in a deep role. While he didn’t blow up the combine and posted a middling 4.58-second 40-yard dash, Branch displays football instincts that more than compensate for the lack of long speed.

A fringe first-round prospect prior to the combine, Antonio Johnson saw his stock fall after an overall poor performance at the combine. His 40-yard dash (60th percentile) and 10-yard split (63rd percentile) were good, but his strength and explosive workouts were best left a mystery. He posted just eight bench reps (5th percentile) and a 31-inch vertical jump (7th percentile). Despite that, he shows good burst on tape and makes plays at the line of scrimmage.

Contrary to Johnson is arguably the most athletic player in this draft class in Sydney Brown. He came out of Indianapolis ranking 93rd percentile or better in the 10-yard split, bench press, vertical jump and broad jump. Despite the pure athleticism, Brown’s tape is littered with missed tackles (30 the past two seasons) and middling play in run defense in 2022 (67.8 grade). His athleticism shows up in coverage, where he forced eight incompletions and picked off six passes en route to an 89.4 grade.

Jammie Robinson was another poor tester at the combine but is one of the surest tacklers in this class with light feet. Jordan Battle was a four-year starter at Alabama and didn’t show any red flags in his testing at the combine. Christopher Smith was an integral piece for the back-to-back national champions and posted three straight years of overall grades above 74.7.

Best Safeties Available in Trades

  1. Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans
  2. Darnell Savage, Green Bay Packers

Kevin Byard’s cap hit this year is $19.6 million, and a post-June 1 trade would save the Titans $14.1 million in 2023 alone. Byard has been the second-most valuable safety in the NFL, per PFF WAR, since 2020 and has consistently been a top-three safety in the NFL since being drafted in 2016.

Darnell Savage is coming off the worst season (47.5 overall grade) of his young career after the Packers exercised former Maryland Terrapin's fifth-year option. After peaking in 2020 with a 72.1 grade, Savage has disappointed for Green Bay. Trading him would save the Packers $7.9 million off the cap in 2023.


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