The offseason programs are in the books and teams across the NFL are on the doorstep of their summer breaks prior to the start of training camp in a few weeks. As we wait for the 2021 season to unofficially get under way with the start of camps, we here at CBS Sports are taking the temperature of every position in the league. We already dived deep into the weeds on the offensive side of the ball and now we're stacking up the best of the best on defense. Here, we'll specifically be looking at the safety position and ranking the top 10 players at that spot heading into 2021.
Of course, all of these players listed should be considered elite, as should some of those who were unable to crack the top spot. As for those on the outside looking in, there's certainly a case to be made for some of them to squeak in, which shows how the margins between these stars are razor-thin. Before we jump into the full top 10 list, let's highlight some of those who came up just short.
Just missed (in no particular order): Jamal Adams (Seahawks), Anthony Harris (Eagles), Micah Hyde (Bills), Jordan Poyer (Bills), Budda Baker (Cardinals), Kevin Byard (Titans), Darnell Savage (Packers), Antoine Winfield Jr. (Buccaneers), Julian Blackmon (Colts)
Top 10 safeties
10. Derwin James, Chargers
Had injuries not come into play, James would likely be rivaling for the top spot on this list. The Chargers' first-round pick in 2018 came out of the gate hot, earning an All-Pro nod during his rookie season. That year, he allowed an 82 passer rating and a 67.1 completion percentage while filling up the stat sheet. James totaled 105 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and recorded three interceptions along with 13 pass breakups. Calling that a monster rookie season doesn't even begin to describe what James put together. However, the safety has only been able to play five games since that stellar rookie season, including zero in 2020 after suffering a torn meniscus last September. Again, if injuries weren't part of James' story, he'd be much higher on this list. Because they are, however, it may be even generous to place him inside the top 10.
9. Adrian Amos, Packers
Amos doesn't pile up the interceptions, which oftentimes makes him somewhat underrated when speaking about the game's top safeties, but make no mistake, he's as solid as they come. The 28-year-old has posted at least eight pass breakups over the last three seasons and has two picks in each of those campaigns. He was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded safety in coverage last season and allowed just an 85.7 passer rating when targeted, according to Pro Football Reference. Since coming over to the Packers in 2019, Amos has also formed a solid secondary alongside fellow safety Darnell Savage and corner Jaire Alexander. He's also remained extremely durable over that stretch, playing 100% of the defensive snaps in 2019 and 98% in 2020.
Even as he's risen above the 30-year-old threshold over the last few seasons, Smith has continued to be a force in Minnesota's secondary. Even in what may be considered a down year by his standards, he was able to record five interceptions and 10 pass breakups while allowing a 71.6 passer rating when targeted. Smith also was able to disrupt the quarterback quite a bit, compiling seven pressures and two hurries while getting credit for half a sack. Those totals are even more impressive when you factor in the less-than-stellar defensive line play in front of him. Being able to perform at that level despite breakdowns in front of him makes Harris -- who has lined up as a box, slot and free safety -- still one of the better players at his position as he enters Year 10.
There's a case to be made that Williams should be higher on this list. New Orleans' fifth-year safety continues to climb the ladder as one of the game's best at his position and it likely won't be long until he's given an All-Pro and Pro Bowl nod. He allowed a 61.5 completion percentage in 2020. What was most impressive, however, was his 4.8 missed-tackle percentage only missing his mark three times last year on his 62 opportunities, per Pro Football Reference. The Saints placed the franchise tag on him this offseason, and for good reason, as he's been the second-highest graded safety according to Pro Football Focus' metrics, dating to 2019.
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6. Marcus Maye, Jets
The 2-14 New York Jets didn't have much to celebrate in 2020, but Maye was one of the club's bright spots. The 28-year-old turned in a career year, totaling highs in pass breakups (11), total tackles (88), sacks (two), and forced fumbles (two). Maye also tied his career high in interceptions with two throughout the year. When targeted, he allowed just a 58.7 completion percentage and an 80.4 passer rating. According to PFF's grading system, Maye slotted in as the fourth highest-graded safety for 2020. Maye was also not only able to carry the weight of Jamal Adams' departure but proved that he can be a versatile weapon on his own, which is promising as he enters a 2021 season where he'll likely play on the franchise tender.
5. John Johnson III, Browns
Johnson is one of the crowning additions to the Browns' impressive offseason that has them in the conversation to come out of the AFC. The former Ram has been one of the game's best-kept secrets for a little bit, but his play certainly has him among the best safeties that the NFL has to offer. He allowed a passer rating of 71.9 in 2020 and while his completion percentage when targeted was near 70% (69.1%), Johnson allowed just 6.4 yards per completion and 4.4 yards per target, which were considerably improved from his previous two seasons. He can line up in the box, slot or back deep giving whatever secondary he's injected into a ton of versatility. Johnson also totaled 105 tackles on the year and missed on just nine others. It will be interesting to see how this move to the Browns will treat him, but at the moment he's a top safety in the league.
4. Jessie Bates III, Bengals
Bates may not get the full credit that he deserves due to the Bengals not being in contention, but he's one of the best safeties going right now. The 2020 second-team All-Pro was PFF's highest-graded safety last season. According to Pro Football Reference's metrics, Bates allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 54.3% of their passes, and the safety was credited for a passer rating of just 70.7 when targeted. He also notched a career-best 15 pass breakups, while tallying his third consecutive season with three picks.
Fitzpatrick will likely be firmly inside this top five for the foreseeable future. During his first full season with the Steelers last year, Fitzpatrick earned his second-consecutive All-Pro nod as a member of one of the better defenses in the entire NFL. He injected an opportunistic edge to Pittsburgh's defense when he was acquired from the Dolphins in 2019 and that continued into 2020 where he started all 16 games and hauled in four interceptions. He also notched a career-high 11 pass breakups, while allowing a completion percentage of just 50. When targeted, Fitzpatrick gave up just a 65.7 passer rating.
2. Tyrann Mathieu, Chiefs
The Honey Badger continues to be arguably the game's best safety. He's a jack of all trades within Kansas City's secondary and has been the face of that defense throughout this run of Super Bowl appearances, while also proving to be extremely clutch in those high-pressure moments. He was an All-Pro for his efforts last season where he allowed a 62.7 completion percentage and just a 60.2 passer rating when targeted. Mathieu also notched a career-high six interceptions, while also defending nine passes. Similar to Fitzpatrick, Mathieu is a straight-up playmaker.
Simmons not only tops this list as the NFL's top safety, but his bank account reflects that as well after agreeing to an extension with the Broncos earlier this offseason that makes him the highest-paid player at the position. While it may not have been as prolific as his 2019 season, the 27-year-old turned in another strong campaign in 2020 where he totaled a career-high five interceptions to go along with nine pass breakups. Simmons has been PFF's top-graded safety over the last two years and was only behind Jessie Bates III in 2020. Dating to 2018, only two safeties have hauled in at least 12 interceptions in the regular season (per PFF): Simmons and Mathieu. Meanwhile, this Denver secondary should only improve heading into 2021 with first-rounder Patrick Surtain II and veteran Kyle Fuller added to the unit.