The safety position has increased in value over the last several years because of the uptick in passing and the need for the position to be able to help stop the run like a linebacker while simultaneously acting like an extra cornerback in coverage. Some of the NFL's most versatile talents line up at the position today. The criteria to determine this list includes statistics and advanced metrics like Pro Football Focus' grades, in addition to Pro Football Reference's Approximate Value. Since the safety position is a bit more diverse than others with the utilization of different players at the position with unique skillsets, different types of safeties fill out the list for representation purposes.
Without further ado, here we go.
Honorable mentions: Micah Hyde, Bills; Quandre Diggs, Seahawks; Jessie Bates III, Falcons; Kamren Curl, Commanders; Jayron Kearse, Cowboys; Jevon Holland, Dolphins; Marcus Williams, Ravens; Harrison Smith, Vikings; Ryan Neal, Buccaneers.
10. Kyle Dugger
Kyle Dugger does a little bit of everything well as a strong safety/slot cornerback hybrid in New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick's defense. The 2020 second round pick out of Lenoir-Rhyne tallied Pro Football Focus' fifth-highest coverage grade among safeties (80.1) in addition to the 11th-highest run defense grade (78.5). Dugger's play style allows for Belichick to deploy fewer traditional inside linebackers than in New England's Super Bowl glory years, which isn't a bad thing since the league continues to tilt more and more pass-heavy as years go by. The 27-year-old should continue to blossom entering his fourth NFL season.
Tyrann Mathieu at age 31 doesn't play quite like the whirling dervish of his early years that earned him the "Honey Badger" moniker and 2010s All-Decade Team accolades, but he still remains stout in coverage. Mathieu was Pro Football Focus' highest-graded safety in coverage last season with a grade of 88.1. He earned the mark by only surrendering 7.6 yards per reception when targeted (tied for the fourth-fewest among safeties with a minimum of 500 coverage snaps), as well as just a 65.9 passer rating when targeted (the sixth-fewest among safeties with a minimum of 500 coverage snaps). The LSU product's return home to Louisiana last season with the New Orleans Saints helped Dennis Allen maintain a top-10 scoring defense, 20.3 points per game allowed (ninth-fewest in the NFL), in his first season as New Orleans' head coach.
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As long as he remains healthy -- he did play all 17 games in his 10th NFL season in 2022 -- Mathieu should continue to age gracefully as one of the league's best at the position.
Antoine Winfield Jr.'s role on Todd Bowles' defense down in Tampa Bay is unique. He's essentially a strong safety when playing the run while functioning like the Buccaneers top slot cornerback in coverage. Winfield Jr. registered the NFL's highest Pro Football Focus pass-rush grade (91.6) among safeties as well as PFF's second-highest run defense grade (85.5) at the position. His pass coverage abilities have room to grow, but the soon-to-be 25-year-old already ranks as the NFL's top pure strong safety heading into 2023.
7. Jordan Poyer
Not many safeties provide more value to their team's defense than Jordan Poyer. The Buffalo Bills went a perfect 12-0 in the regular season games he was able to suit up in during the 2022 season. The shining element of his game is keeping everything in front of him in coverage: Poyer allowed either a first down or touchdown on 22.7% of his targets as the primary defender last season, the second-lowest rate among qualified safeties in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
Bills head coach Sean McDermott relies heavily on Poyer's ability to both cover and blitz, so even as he struggled with injuries at age 31, missing five games, his impact when available cannot be denied.
6. Kevin Byard
No safety has more interceptions across the last six seasons -- since 2017 -- than Kevin Byard and his 27. He's only one shy of sharing the NFL lead, regardless of position, with Miami Dolphins corner Xavien Howard, who has 28 in that span. Byard maintained his solid production in 2022 with four picks and 108 tackles, the second-most in a season for the two-time First-Team All-Pro. His 76.7 Pro Football Focus coverage grade ranked as the ninth-best among safeties, showing can do more than just sniff out turnovers when dropping back in coverage. Byard remains a model of consistent greatness at the position, which is why he's just outside the top-five as he approaches age 30.
Talanoa Hufanga has only played two seasons of NFL football, but he's already one of the best in the league, earning Pro Bowl and First-Team All-Pro accolades in 2022, his first year as a full-time starter. His standout ability to generate takeaways in coverage (four interceptions) while also being a threat as a pass-rusher (2.0 sacks and seven quarterback pressures) helped power the San Francisco 49ers to the top-ranked scoring defense in the league last season (16.3 points per game allowed).
If Hufanga can replicate his efforts as a starter going forward, he'll be threatening for the top spot on this list in short order.
4. Budda Baker
Budda Baker is as good as gets among strong safeties in the NFL. He totaled the fourth-highest run-stop rate (6.1%) and ranked third in tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage (eight) among safeties in 2022. The five-time Pro Bowler and two-time First-Team All-Pro plays like he's on fire at all times, sprinting from sideline to sideline to snuff plays out before they can even get started. Baker may have an opportunity to shine even brighter in 2023, should the tanking Arizona Cardinals opt to grant .
Justin Simmons is as reliable as it gets, logging either All-Pro (three-time second-teamer in 2019, 2021, and 2022) or Pro Bowl (2020) honors in each of the last four seasons. Simmons' six interceptions in 2022 co-led the league, and his 20 total across the last four seasons since 2019 are the most among safeties and the second-most in the NFL, trailing only Los Angeles Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson's 22. As he approaches his age 30 season, Simmons remains one of the NFL's best.
Minkah Fitzpatrick is the NFL's prototypical free safety: a true centerfielder who is adept in coverage and makes opposing quarterbacks pay with their mistakes in turnovers. Fitzpatrick co-led the NFL in interceptions in 2022 with six, and his Pro Football Focus coverage grade of 83.2, the best of his six-year career, ranked as the fourth-highest among safeties last season. Since becoming a Pittsburgh Steeler in 2019 after being traded up north by the Miami Dolphins, he's one of only four safeties in the NFL with 15 or more interceptions (17) and multiple forced fumbles (four). At 26 years old, the 2022 First-Team All-Pro has many more years of dominance left.
1. Derwin James
Derwin James reigns as the NFL's top safety because he can do anything and everything a coach could ask out of a player at the position. He allowed the fewest yards per reception (7.0) among all safeties who played a minimum of 500 snaps on defense, according to Pro Football Focus. James also performed as one of the best pass-rushers among safeties with four sacks (tied for the second-most in the NFL among safeties) and nine quarterback pressures (tied for the sixth-most among safeties). Naturally, his 90.5 PFF pass-rush grade ranked as the second-best among safeties with a minimum of 500 snaps, trailing only Buccaneers safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (91.6). He's also a tackle magnet as his 115 in 2022 ranked as the fifth-most among safeties.
Derwin James snap alignment in 2022 season*
* per PFF
The soon-to-be 27-year-old can also line up at nearly every position across the defensive formation, as evidenced by the Chargers' deployment of him in 2022. That versatility combined with his top-tier production makes James the best safety in the league.