• The do-it-all Derwin James takes No. 1: There isn’t a better combination of run defense (75.3 grade), coverage (74.5) and pass rush (90.9) at the position.
• Minkah Fitzpatrick, Kevin Byard round out the top three: Fitzpatrick's 82.4 overall grade ranked third among qualified safeties, and Byard's 79.5 overall grade was a top-10 mark.
• Three Cowboys safeties make the cut: Dallas fielded one of the league's best safety rooms in 2022, headed by Jayron Kearse, Donovan Wilson and Malik Hooker.
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As we inch toward the 2023 NFL season, we look to recognize young breakout performers, consistent veterans and impact players at every position.
Here are the top 32 safeties heading into the 2023 season.
Other positional rankings:
James is the league’s most dynamic playmaker at safety. There isn’t a better combination of run defense (75.3 grade), coverage (74.5) and pass rush (90.9). His 77.6 overall grade ranked 13th among all qualified safeties in 2022. He racked up two interceptions, two forced fumbles and four sacks. On any given day, the soon-to-be 27-year-old has the ability to be the best safety in football. If he has another performance similar to his rookie year (87.8 overall grade), he’ll be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation.
The centerpiece of the Steelers' secondary, Fitzpatrick had an excellent 2022 season after a disappointing 2021. His 82.4 overall grade ranked third among qualified safeties and he was one of just two safeties in the NFL to post at least an 82.0 grade in both run defense and coverage. His six interceptions, including a pick-six of Joe Burrow, tied for the NFL lead among all players. The Steelers’ cornerback position is in flux, but they can take comfort in knowing Fitzpatrick is roving behind them.
Byard is as pure a free safety as there is in the NFL. While his 79.5 overall grade and 81.0 coverage grade weren’t the best of his career, they still were top-10 marks in the NFL in 2022. He racked up four more interceptions last season to bring his career total to 28. He makes plays on the ball while also being as reliable as they come. His 90.6 tackling grade ranked second among all safeties in 2022, and he has played at least 1,000 snaps in six straight seasons.
Winfield's coverage grade (67.0) took a dip in 2022, but he still served as the enforcer in Tampa Bay’s defense. He carried a terrific 89.4 run-defense grade and missed only three total tackles. He is also an excellent blitzer, with his four sacks and league-leading 91.1 pass-rush grade serving as the evidence. Tampa Bay may have to win with its defense this year, and Winfield will be leading the way.
Hyde suffered a major neck injury that forced him out of action for most of 2022. He is the glue that holds Buffalo’s secondary together when healthy, though. Hyde finished in the top 15 in overall grading among qualified safeties in four of his previous five seasons in Buffalo. He had a spectacular year in coverage in 2021, posting an 89.8 coverage grade and six interceptions. A clean bill of health and return to form would do wonders for him and the Bills’ secondary.
Simmons endured an injury-plagued and inconsistent 2022. He tied for the league lead with six interceptions and still flashed high-end play (see: 92.5 grade vs. Baltimore). He also had four separate games with overall grades below 50.0. Denver’s secondary is still its best unit, and Simmons is the leader of that group. His strong track record keeps him high on this list, though we may not see a repeat of his elite 2019 performance (90.7 overall grade).
“The Honey Badger” is always in the middle of things and was at his best playing for his hometown Saints. Mathieu’s 87.9 coverage grade last season led all safeties, and he gave up only one reception of 20-plus yards. His elite versatility and instincts allow Dennis Allen to use his entire playbook. Mathieu showed he still has plenty in the tank during his age-30 campaign.
Poyer carried a 75.4 overall grade in the 2022 regular season before posting a sub-40.0 grade in each of his two playoff games. Despite the imbalance caused by those final two games, he remains a consistent force, having graded between 65.7 and 77.7 in each of the past five years. He captained Buffalo’s secondary reasonably well despite a ton of injuries around him. Micah Hyde’s recovery and the addition of Taylor Rapp should lead to a bounce-back year for the Bills’ entire coverage unit.
Bates was a key piece in the Bengals’ turnaround over the past few years. While he likely won’t repeat his elite 2020 performance (90.1 overall), he is incredibly reliable and durable. His best days — including three games in 2022 with game grades above 89.0 — are as good as anyone's. His 88.3 run-defense grade was a top-10 mark. Bates' presence in Atlanta’s secondary will help change the culture of their defense.
Holland took a step back after his spectacular rookie season. His 2022 grade of 67.2 portrays him as more of a solid starter than a perennial Pro Bowler. Holland, along with the rest of Miami’s secondary, struggled throughout the season, but he showed flashes of his potential with two elite 90.0-plus game grades. The talent is there, and Jalen Ramsey arrives to bring stability at cornerback. Holland is a worthy bounce-back candidate who has the talent to top this list.
It feels strange to think the 27-year-old Baker is already a five-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro. His name has come up in trade rumors, but regardless of where he plays, he’ll be a stud. He’s a versatile leader who currently is the only bright spot on Arizona’s defense. He has graded between 64.6 and 75.3 in all six of his seasons. He was excellent down the stretch last season, minus a clunker against San Francisco.
Hufanga has carved out a nice role as a Troy Polamalu-lite playmaker. After playing a backup/special teams role in his rookie season, Hufanga stuffed the stat sheet in 2022 with four interceptions, seven pass breakups, two sacks and two forced fumbles. His 32 defensive stops tied for third among all safeties. He takes gambles at times, but his 72.1 overall grade is very good for a first-year starter. He could easily be a top-10 player on this list a year from now.
Hamilton came into the 2022 NFL Draft with a ton of fanfare out of Notre Dame. Shockingly, he exceeded his lofty expectations and was easily the NFL’s highest-graded safety (87.6). He was a monster in every phase of the game and made 24 combined stops on just 600 total snaps. While he hasn’t yet reeled in his first interception, he did break up five passes in 2022. His increase in usage was a huge reason Baltimore’s defense improved down the stretch.
One of the most versatile players on this list, Ward moved almost exclusively to the slot in 2022 after several years of acting as a more movable chess piece. Ward figures to go back to his old role in Houston with DeMeco Ryans running the show, and even if he doesn’t, he will likely be very productive. Ward’s 91.4 run-defense grade last season should immensely help the Texans’ league-worst run defense.
Gardner-Johnson stands as the most polarizing player on this list. Some would put him in the top 10, although his 2022 overall grade of 65.0 didn't crack the top 50 at the position. The things that make him great — attitude, aggression, selling out for big plays — are the same things that get him in trouble. What is consistent, though, is that his best games generally correlate with higher slot usage. In seven games with at least 12 slot snaps, he graded out to 80.6 overall. He earned just a 46.9 mark in the rest of his games. His role is clear, and he is an elite playmaker when used properly.
There was a time when Adams may have headlined this list. Things haven’t quite worked out yet in Seattle for him. At his best, Adams is the best box safety in football with an unparalleled ability to rush the passer. Seattle’s defense would instantly change if Adams plays like he did in his final two years in New York (89.8 in 2018, 87.9 in 2019). It’s just been a long time since we’ve seen that from him, and Seattle will hope he can stay on the field after essentially missing all of 2022.
The ageless Smith is past his prime at 34 years old, but he still commands the Vikings’ secondary with aplomb. While his 2022 overall grade of 68.4 is more solid than elite, he did haul in a team-leading five interceptions despite the struggles of the rest of Minnesota’s coverage unit. It’s quite possible that he will start and finish 2023 as the Vikings' best defensive back. That says a lot more about the Vikings than Smith at this point in his career.
Jackson was playing his best football since 2018 before tearing his Achilles in Week 12 against the Jets. His 76.2 overall grade was a top-15 mark, and he allowed only eight catches for 97 yards into his coverage in the 12 games he did play. Jackson is still a playmaker, as evidenced by his four interceptions in those 12 games, and a full recovery would be a massive boon to a defense that needs to be better in 2023.
While Malik Hooker roves the deep part of the field behind him, Kearse has carved out a role for himself rotating between the box and slot. He’s shown a little of everything in his two years with Dallas. He’s had two interceptions and 11 total pressures in each of the past two seasons. His overall grades of 75.9 (2021) and 71.9 (2022) display his consistency. He’s also never missed more than four tackles in his seven seasons. He’s a solid contributor to a really good defense.
A breakout star at the position, Curl’s 82.9 overall grade ranked second among qualified safeties. Curl doesn’t stuff the traditional stat sheet, but consistency is the name of his game. He missed only four tackles on the season and posted just two game grades below 60.0. Washington found a gem in Curl in the seventh round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and he’s become an important cog in a very good coverage unit.
A jack-of-all-trades grinder who is used all over the field, Dugger makes plays no matter where he lines up. He brings a physical presence and is often employed as an extra linebacker in Bill Belichick’s defense. Dugger carried a 76.7 run-defense grade and also excelled in the passing game with a 78.3 coverage grade. He was one of just seven safeties in the league to post grades that high in both facets. New England needs a new alpha presence on the back end after Devin McCourty’s retirement. Dugger is primed to fill that void.
Death, taxes and Quandre Diggs. No defensive player has played more snaps over the past three seasons than Diggs. He has earned a 71.0-plus overall grade in four of the past five seasons while recording at least three interceptions in six straight seasons. His consistency is nearly unparalleled, and he came through in the clutch last year with an elite 91.1 game grade in Week 18 as the Seahawks clinched a playoff spot.
McLeod has been remarkably consistent throughout his career, and his age-32 season was his best yet. In his lone year in Indianapolis, he put up an 85.3 coverage grade, a career high and second only to Tyrann Mathieu among safeties. His league-leading 90.9 zone coverage grade figures to fit in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme as he attempts to improve a Cleveland secondary that struggled mightily in 2022.
Williams’ stable play in the deep part of the field is what allows Kyle Hamilton to roam free in the box. While Williams didn’t quite have the 2022 grading profile from his time in New Orleans, he did finish with four interceptions and four pass breakups. His 42.9 passer rating allowed ranked third best among all qualified safeties. Williams does a lot of the quiet work, but he does it at a very high level.
McKinney’s third year out of Alabama was a bit rough, as he carried just a 61.1 overall grade this past season. He also missed eight games and did not intercept a pass. That stands in contrast to the 2021 version of McKinney, who posted a 75.4 overall grade and picked off five passes that year. The Giants need vast improvement from their secondary if they want to see the postseason again in 2023. A return to form for McKinney would go a long way in achieving that goal.
The second Dallas safety to appear on this list, Wilson plays more in the box than Jayron Kearse, and 2022 was a breakout year for him. Wilson is an aggressive player and an occasionally excellent blitzer. His 14 pressures led all safeties and his 85.3 pass-rush grade ranked fourth. He can be overly aggressive at times, as evidenced by his 18 missed tackles, but Wilson and his running mates give Dallas a chance to field an elite secondary this season.
Brisker showed flashes of elite playmaking ability during his rookie season. His one-handed interception of Mac Jones was arguably the play of the year for Chicago’s defense. His 67.0 overall grade is in the same neighborhood as guys like Poyer, Holland and Hufanga above. Brisker accomplished all of this despite playing behind arguably the worst front seven in football. The Bears expended a ton of resources to improve their defense this offseason. A Year 2 breakout from Brisker would greatly improve their playoff chances and move him toward the top 20 of these rankings.
Similar to Kamren Curl, Neal broke out in 2022 after several nondescript years in the league. The Southern Illinois product posted an 84.4 coverage grade last season, third best among qualified safeties. He departs Seattle for Tampa this season to pair with Antoine Winfield Jr. Neal’s sample size is smaller than Curl’s, but from Week 7 onward he was the best safety in the NFL. A similar showing could make his pairing with Winfield second to none.
Amos’ struggles (53.4 overall grade) this past season were shocking, considering his previous career-low grade was 69.6. Amos’ track record should act as a foreshadowing for a bounceback. His 69.7 run-defense grade and 22 defensive stops were still solid marks. He just needs to rediscover his form in coverage after posting an uncharacteristic 45.6 grade in that facet. Amos has too good of a track record to think he’s washed up at age 30.
There may not be a better scheme fit on this list than Hooker being paired with Dan Quinn’s Cover 3 defense. Hooker is a true free safety with the speed to man the deep middle by himself. His primary responsibilities in Quinn’s defense are to make tackles and prevent big plays. He does both at an elite level. He missed only four tackles and gave up 10 (!) yards after the catch all season. That all contributed to his 76.2 overall grade, a top-15 mark at the position.
Harmon has long been a reliable free safety with solid coverage skills, earning a 77.6 coverage grade in 2022 that ranked 12th among qualified safeties. He gave up only two plays longer than 14 yards into his coverage last season. Harmon isn’t the most physical presence, but he won’t lose any games on the back end.
Similar to Kyle Dugger, Phillips is a classic Bill Belichick chess piece. Phillips generally lurks in the box as an extra presence in the run game but also has the versatility to play deep or in the slot. His 702 snaps played are a little light for a guy who appeared in all 17 games in 2022, but he is very reliable when on the field. Phillips missed only four tackles and did not give up 40 yards into his coverage in any game last season.