Ranking safeties in today’s NFL is becoming increasingly complex because of defensive evolutions and the various roles the position encompasses. “Safety” in the NFL is, in truth, several different positions with wildly different responsibilities, and comparing them directly is tricky.
This has been true for a long time, but it seems to be getting more extreme. Directly comparing a true coverage free safety to a box defender or a tight-end matchup weapon on defense is a fairly arbitrary construct, so in this article we have split out the top safeties in the league into their differing roles. Some of these players could fit more than one of these buckets, and in fact have throughout their careers, but this is where they sit right now based on the past couple of seasons.
Coverage Free Safety Tier:
Coverage is king in today’s NFL, and the safety position is pivoting toward players who excel deep downfield. A few years ago, this meant Earl Thomas-type players who occupied the single-high zone in defenses playing almost exclusively Cover 3 or Cover 1. Those players still exist, but the defense most in vogue right now is the Vic Fangio tree of two-high safety looks, where free safeties are occupying either one half of the field or even just a quarter with various pattern-match responsibilities.
Kevin Byard has been a prototypical free safety since he was a draft prospect. He is coming off a season with a career-high 90.4 overall PFF grade and a 90.9 coverage grade. That marked his third career 80.0-plus coverage grade, and it was also the third time he was aligned at free safety for more than 600 snaps over a season.
Antoine Winfield Jr. may be entering only his third year in the league, but he hit the ground running for a Super Bowl team and then backed that up with an 86.1 PFF grade that ranked second in the league last year. Winfield is a playmaker and exceptionally good in coverage, where his ability to read the play quickly really comes to the fore.
Marcus Williams signed a big free agent deal this offseason and has been incredibly consistent in the NFL at a position where consistently high-end play is hard to come by.
Jessie Bates III is only a year removed from a 90.1 PFF grade and a truly elite season for the Bengals. That season brought forth his best career PFF grade by more than 10 grading points, although the campaigns on either side of it might be why the Bengals have seemed reluctant to hand him a monster new contract.
Similarly, Justin Simmons’ 90.7 PFF grade from 2019 represents his career-high by more than 10 grading points. Both players have shown elite upside and play, but they haven’t been able to maintain that peak for as long as some others.
Box Strong Safety Tier:
Strong safety used to be a coveted specialty role in the NFL, encompassing those who played more like auxiliary linebackers and patrolled the box, defending the run and covering short zones underneath. Now, those players are linebackers, particularly in sub packages, and the league has come to covet other skills for strong safeties. Even the players on this list need to have more strings to their bow than simply stuffing the run from heavy formations.
Budda Baker is a heat-seeking missile in the Arizona defense, amassing 160 defensive stops in just five seasons of play. He has three 80.0-plus PFF run-defense grades in his first five seasons, and his versatility allows him to move around the defense, playing plenty as a free safety and in the slot.
Jamal Adams was thought to be this matchup weapon on defense, a player capable of lining up anywhere and doing his job well, But in Seattle, he has been struggling badly in any role other than one close to the line of scrimmage as more of a classic strong safety. Adams has PFF coverage grades of 53.1 and 47.4 since joining the Seahawks but has maintained a strong run-defense grade while continuing to shine when rushing the passer. He is still a talented player, but perhaps his role is more limited than originally thought.
Matchup Slot Tier:
The strong safeties of old continue to be replaced by hybrid matchup defenders, players who can line up in the box but also cover tight ends and running backs in single coverage from the slot or in other alignments as if they were cornerbacks. There’s nobody better at this than Derwin James. His in-season tape is clear evidence, but you can also watch the practice/training camp footage that emerges every year of James going one on one with Keenan Allen — one of the best route-runners in the game — and covering him like a blanket. The issue for James has been injuries. In a four-year career, he has played just over 2,000 snaps, which is essentially half of the available playing time. He’s elite when on the field, but he needs to stay healthy.
Tyrann Mathieu is such a matchup weapon that for several years of his career he was a pure slot cornerback more than he was a safety. Mathieu hasn’t been at his best for a few years now, but his alignment versatility makes him incredibly valuable to any defense. He has lined up in the slot on more than 200 snaps in a season for the past seven years and should get the chance to replace Malcolm Jenkins in that matchup role within New Orleans' defense this year.
Since entering the league, Jeremy Chinn may have had the most unique deployment of any safety, to the point that he breaks a lot of position designations and really is operating in a one-man role. He made a lot of spectacular plays as a rookie yet was also on the wrong end of some big gains for the offense. He was far more consistent in Year 2, giving up half as many touchdowns in primary coverage (three to six) as his rookie year while his coverage grade jumped 10 points.
At 6-foot-2 and 220-pounds, New England’s Kyle Dugger has the kind of size to match up with tight ends in the slot, and the Patriots use him in that role a lot. Dugger faced 84 targets in coverage over his first two seasons in the league, allowing 58 catches for 9.3 yards per reception.
Harrison Smith has long been the prototype for this group of safeties. Much of that is because of the Vikings' Mike Zimmer-led defense, but Smith was the player who made all of those coverage shells work. His ability to line up in any safety position within any coverage shell allowed the rest of the pieces to fall into place around him. Smith may be declining from his elite best (his past two seasons have earned PFF grades of 74.3 and 77.9, down from 90.0-plus), but he still ranked 12th at the position in 2021 for a defense that lost a lot of talent.
Adrian Amos has become one of the most underrated safeties in the league. While lacking splash plays, he is consistently in the right place at the right time and grades very well in all facets of the game. Amos has been the league’s best-graded safety over the past two seasons. Last year, his coverage and run-defense grades came in at 74.0 or better.
Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer each fit into this category for the Buffalo Bills and together may form the best safety duo in the league. Each can line up anywhere they are needed within the scheme and playing next to one another is clearly a force multiplier for their success. Buffalo runs a scheme that puts them in position to succeed, but they take advantage of it extremely well on their own.
John Johnson III backed up his fine play in Los Angeles with a solid year in Cleveland. His overall PFF grade dropped, but he was still above average in every facet of play that PFF measures.
Although Justin Reid is coming off some ugly grading, we saw earlier in his career what he is capable of in a defense that doesn’t shed all of its talent around him. Now that he has an opportunity to play within a better defense again, we should see a rebound performance in 2022.