Ranking the NFL’s top 10 safeties for 2022

Ranking the NFL’s top 10 safeties for 2022 post thumbnail image

We all love best-of lists, but what if people around the NFL created their own? To preview the 2022 NFL season, we surveyed more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from edge rusher to interior offensive lineman. This is the third edition of these rankings, and there are several players who moved up or dropped from last year’s lists. Saturday, we focus on the safeties.

Here’s how our process worked: Voters gave us their best 10 players at a position, then we compiled the results and ranked candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, hundreds of interviews, research and film-study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, more than 50 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. We had several ties, so we broke them with the help of additional voting and follow-up calls with our rankers. Each section is packed with quotes and nuggets from the voters on every guy — even the honorable mentions.

The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2022. This is not a five-year projection or an achievement award. Who are the best players today? Pretty simple.

We’ll roll out a position per day over 11 days. Here’s the schedule: edge rushers (July 5), defensive tackles (July 6), off-ball linebackers (July 7), cornerbacks (July 8), safeties (July 9), interior offensive linemen (July 10), quarterbacks (July 11), running backs (July 12), wide receivers (July 13), tight ends (July 14) and offensive tackles (July 15).

The safety position is looking up. Players are getting paid more, with the market rising from $15.25 million to $18.4 million per year over the calendar year, thanks to Minkah Fitzpatrick‘s four-year, $73.6 million deal with the Steelers.

That’s because the job description is evolving. Safeties are asked to play the deep ball, play the run, cover running backs and tight ends, get the secondary organized, command a leadership role, manipulate the quarterback pre-snap, create the illusion of pressure at the line of scrimmage and get interceptions whenever possible.

These 10 players are the best at all of that, and the competition was steep — 23 players earned votes, an abnormally high total for our top-10 process. Some are true ball-hawk center fielders, while others are more like linebackers in the way they work the line of scrimmage. And too many good players just missed the cut. Let’s look at some of the game’s top safeties as ranked by execs, coaches, scouts and players around the NFL.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 8
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: 2

Simmons nearly took the safety crown a year ago but was edged out by Minkah Fitzpatrick. Simmons secured the top ranking this time around thanks to another season of consistent production and scheme versatility.

Coaches and execs say Simmons can do it all. “He can play deep in coverage, helps with the run and he can cover in man coverage on a tight end or a running back,” an AFC scout said. “He’s got the ideal range and size to handle everything.”

Simmons’ ball production last season — five interceptions (tied for league-lead among safeties, and tied for fourth overall) with 12 passes defended (tied for second among safeties) — is the norm for him. He has produced at least four picks in each of the past three seasons. He can cover wide receivers if necessary, which, at his size (6-foot-2, 202 pounds), provides Denver with a major advantage.

“If you’re judging safety play by who’s the most complete and checks the most boxes, he’s that guy for me,” an AFC defensive coach said.

Simmons’ 53.5 disrupted dropbacks — interceptions, pass breakups, sacks — over the past three seasons lead all safeties.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 6
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 1

Fitzpatrick is the NFL’s highest-paid safety for a reason — he’s a franchise pillar for the Steelers. Over four seasons, Fitzpatrick has 37 pass deflections, 13 interceptions, 350 tackles and two first-team All Pro nods.

“Above the neck game — he can play strong and free safety and has range,” an NFC exec said. “Started for Miami as an outside corner as a rookie. How many safeties can handle that?”

Pro Football Focus was not kind to Fitzpatrick, giving him a 59.8 overall 2021 player grade, and NFL Next Gen Stats tracked 25 receptions against on 43 targets as the nearest defender. But Fitzpatrick did lead all defensive backs with 124 tackles.

Fitzpatrick narrowly beat Simmons in last year’s voting, but he was coming off two seasons of high-level ball production. Numbers don’t tell the whole story this year, but Fitzpatrick finished last season with two interceptions and eight passes defended — down from four and 11, respectively, in 2020.

“Minkah is the leader of the entire secondary — he controls all the checks, all the calls, controls everything,” an AFC defensive coach said. “Here’s the catch: He can play man-to-man, but he’s not elite at it. He can blitz, but he’s not elite at it.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 10
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: 7

Byard put together another huge season for the Titans, leading all safeties with 13 passes defended and tying for the league-lead at the position with five interceptions. His ball production is elite, with 2021 marking his third NFL season with at least five picks — and his total of 23 is more than any other safety since 2017.

Furthermore, the 90.2 Pro Football Focus player rating was exceptional, and a ball-hawk rate (percentage of passes defended or intercepted on targets as nearest defender) of 25.5% was ninth among safeties, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

“Consistency in coverage separates him — he’s got rare instincts, always around the ball,” an AFC scout said. “I think that position is the toss-up year-to-year with those top couple of guys, but he’s been the most consistent over the last few years in my opinion.”

An AFC defensive coach added: “I really wanted to put him No. 1. He’s been that good.”

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 9

“Wow” moments have never been an issue for the 6-foot-2, 215-pound James, blanketing top-tier tight ends and running in stride with elite receivers downfield.

“He’s one of the few safeties you can do everything with,” an NFL front-office official said. “He’s a special player when he’s out there.”

But being out there has long been James’ problem. He missed a combined 27 games from 2019-20 with multiple foot injuries. James bounced back in 2021 with 117 tackles (tied for third among defensive backs), two sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles in 15 games. But he still had a few minor issues, including a hamstring injury and a separated shoulder. Offseason shoulder surgery hasn’t stopped the Chargers from rightly making James a centerpiece of the defense, though.

“He’s in the same style of player as [Jamal] Adams and [Budda] Baker, but has been a better cover guy than them,” an NFL coordinator said. “You wonder if the injuries will start to affect that, but this season will say a lot as far as how high he is on the list.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: 3

Baker earned the reputation as a missile from the defensive backfield, ready to strike on running backs and receivers with fearless hits. His 98 tackles in 2021 tied for 12th among all defensive backs. But he has evolved into a good all-around player, holding opposing quarterbacks to a 61.3 passer rating when he is the nearest defender and allowing 19 of 31 completions for 268 yards and a touchdown. He also snagged three interceptions in 2021.

“I give him credit,” an NFC scout said. “He’s improved a lot. The knock on him was he was a one-trick pony and more of a hitter, but he’s become more complete each year.”

Baker is explosive in the open field following interceptions, too, recording 191 return yards off his five picks since 2020. After zero interceptions through his first three NFL seasons, the floodgates have opened.

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 10

Bates comes up big when the Bengals need him. Just look at their four-game playoff run, when Bates was stellar with six pass deflections and two interceptions. The 10th-ranked safety last year is no longer flying under the radar.

“A lot of times guys who are good in coverage might not be the best tacklers, but I feel Bates has found a good balance — he’s elite on the ball, but he’s not a liability against the run either,” an AFC exec said.

Bates admitted to a lack of focus early in the season as he couldn’t come to an agreement on a long-term extension with Cincinnati. He is set to play on a $12.8 million franchise tag this year, and though both sides have until July 15 to reach a new deal, that’s widely not expected.

“That happens sometimes when a guy enters a contract year … there’s a lot to process … but as the season went on, he was excellent,” an NFL personnel evaluator said.

A few voters knocked Bates as a below-average tackler, though his 88 tackles last season ranked No. 24 among defensive backs. Cincinnati was pleased with his all-around play last season.

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 33 | Last year’s ranking: 5

Many evaluators make the same assumption when casting their votes: Harrison Smith still has to be in there, right? But others quickly point out decline after a decade of worn NFL tread.

“Smith no doubt was [the standard] and the prototype for a long time. Age gets us all,” an NFC front-office member said.

Most agree he has probably lost a half-step. But he has been arguably the most complete safety of the past decade and still productive, making his sixth Pro Bowl in 2021 with 114 tackles, three sacks and seven passes defended.

One veteran NFL offensive coach said he is a player “you absolutely must account for on every snap, and the list of safeties that do that is pretty short. Guys like him are still hard to find.”

A high-ranking NFL official added, “He still has all the things that make him special — his brains, instincts and experience will always get him close to the action.”

Several others made the point that Minnesota’s lack of cornerback play and pass rush affected Smith, who tried to compensate and overplayed some angles as a result. But Smith is basically the Demario Davis of safeties, equipped with football savvy to defy age.

“Obviously he’s getting older, but his intelligence overcomes a lot of that,” the defensive coach said.

Highest ranking: 2 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked

Baltimore gave Williams a five-year, $70 million contract in free agency to essentially be its Ed Reed on the back end — a turnover threat and center field-like complement to first-round pick Kyle Hamilton, who will play closer to the ball.

Now, some coaches and execs have an easy time picking out Williams’ flaws. Poor tackler. Not overly instinctive. Misses plays he could or should have made. But he has a dominant trait.

“Once he gets going, he has the best range in the league,” an AFC defensive coach said. “Closing on the ball, he’s ridiculously good.”

And, so, as the voting went, those who like Williams really like him. Those who don’t, especially tackling purists, have no problem leaving him off the ballot. His 74 tackles last season (with the Saints) tied for 49th among defensive backs. But his ball production — 15 interceptions and 38 pass deflections since 2017 — is undeniable.

“One of the better eye manipulators,” an NFL coordinator said. “He’s in a battle with the quarterback, and if you slip, he’s coming for the ball.”

An NFC exec added: “I see him at a good level, not elite. He played on a very good defense that put him in a position to succeed. He took advantage of the opportunities. But I don’t see the same instincts that you see in the top players.”

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 23 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked

Winfield has emerged as a prime player in his first two seasons, earning several top-five votes from personnel who love his combination of toughness and range. As one NFC exec said, he might not be “special” yet, but he is tracking for that status. “[Winfield] was really, really good [last year],” the exec said.

Winfield did a little bit of everything, recording two sacks, two interceptions, three fumbles recovered and 88 tackles on his way to the Pro Bowl. In pass coverage, Winfield allowed 5.8 yards per target when he was the nearest defender, tied for 12th among safeties (per NFL Next Gen Stats).

“His [5-foot-9] size might hurt him a bit, but that’s really the only thing with him,” an AFC scout said. “He’s good against the pass, and he can support the run. Good instincts.”

An NFL coordinator added, “He’s got really good spatial awareness, and he can cover from the slot.”

Highest ranking: 5 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 4

The NFL’s top safety two years ago now barely hangs on to the No. 10 spot. Many voters still consider Adams more of a true linebacker, which doesn’t help his case. His sack numbers dipped from 9.5 in 2020 to zero in 2021. And his feel for pass coverage has been hotly debated. Still, if you remove perceptions and positions, there’s a simple notion that no one really argues: Adams is a really good football player.

“He’s still a game-wrecker,” an NFL personnel director said. “The same critics who praised him as one of the best players in all of football a few years ago are tearing him down. But he hasn’t lost a step. He’s still the same guy.”

Some argued Adams was not positioned for success in 2021, too often deep in coverage when he should be moving toward the ball, closer to the line of scrimmage or placed in more favorable coverage. However, Adams’ numbers as the nearest defender aren’t terrible — 22 completions on 44 targets for 334 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. And Pro Football Focus rated Adams as its No. 3 box safety, behind Baker and Jordan Whitehead.

Adams also had 88 tackles and four tackles for loss in 2021. And the new Seattle defense under coordinator Clint Hurtt will likely utilize Adams all over the field.

“I love what Jamal brings,” an AFC defensive coach said. “But he has limitations. If you put him back covering split safety or the middle third, you’re probably going to have to hide him.”

Honorable mentions

Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins: Holland was excellent as a rookie, pushing for the top 10 after two interceptions, 2.5 sacks and 11 pass breakups last season. Players making the jump to the top 10 after one NFL season are top-billed talents who matched the hype, and Holland was close to joining them. “Given what he’s asked to do, he’s elite,” said a high-ranking NFL exec, citing his ability to hold down the back end for a blitz-heavy Miami attack. “Really high upside, can find the ball, redirect in space,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. “I want to see him do it again before saying he’s a top-10 guy.”

Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks: Diggs is deserving of a top-10 spot after back-to-back seasons of five interceptions to match his gritty style of play. He simply didn’t garner enough high votes. “He’s a thumper who will hit your a–, and he has the ball production,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. When evaluators discuss the Seahawks’ safety tandem of Diggs and Adams, they put it this way: Adams might be the better player, but Diggs is a better safety. He is most comfortable in the post but can come downhill to help with the run. “Hard to find a player who’s been better at that position,” an NFC exec said. “He’s been consistent.”

Jeremy Chinn, Carolina Panthers: Some coaches and execs label Chinn as the next breakout star. He has great size (6-foot-3, 220 pounds) to match his speed (4.46-second 40-yard dash) and ability to hit. “Big, fast, can cover tight ends — not ideal playing in the post, but for someone with his size and ability to play some LB, he holds up pretty good from depth,” an NFC front-office official said. “Well-rounded player.” Chinn reminds a lot of voters of Adams or Baker, due to his linebacker tendencies, only Chinn’s upside as a matchup safety on tight ends could give him a long-term advantage. He was lacking the splash plays in Year 2 (one interception, zero sacks), but those will come. “Elite open-field tackler,” a high-ranking NFL coach said. “Versatility to play middle of field but also LB. Can matchup with the elite TEs in man.”

Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers: Ward is still one of the most versatile safeties in the NFC West, with the ability to cover pass-catchers from multiple spots and angles. But he gets knocked for durability (35 games missed since 2014). “I’ve always loved his game when he’s out there, it’s just hard to trust him to be out there year-to-year,” an AFC exec said. Added an NFL defensive coach: “He’s the best man-to-man coverage safety in the league.”

Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills: Once a special-teamer, Poyer has emerged as a Pro Bowl safety in Buffalo. He’s coming off a career-high five interceptions in 2021, holding opposing quarterbacks to 12-of-29 passing when next to the nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats. “I feel like he’s got one more year playing at a really high level,” said an AFC scout, citing Poyer’s age (31). “He and (Micah Hyde) are safeties you can build your whole defense around, which Buffalo basically does.”

Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans Saints: Sure, some voters saw some decline from Mathieu after nine seasons in the league. But one member of a team’s personnel wonders if that’s overblown. “Who has better instincts than him?” the voter said. The Saints signed Mathieu to a three-year, $28.3 million contract this offseason.

Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers: Amos is one of the league’s most underrated defensive players, a constant for Green Bay’s defense. He ranked as the best safety in Pro Football Focus’ all-around tier and has been PFF’s highest-graded safety over the past two years, with grades above 74.0 against the run and the pass last year. “He might not be as dynamic as some of the others on the list, but he’s just so solid, smart player, good in coverage, always in the right spot,” an AFC scout said.

Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills: Hyde, 31, seems to get better with age, tying a career-high with five interceptions in 2021. The All-Pro second-teamer posted a 32.3% ball-hawk rate per NFL Next Gen Stats — No. 1 among all players who saw at least 30 targets — and Pro Football Focus gave him an 82.0 grade. “Not sure anybody on that Buffalo defense made more big plays,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. “Complete player.”

Also receiving votes: Eddie Jackson (Chicago Bears), Xavier McKinney (New York Giants), John Johnson III (Cleveland Browns), Darnell Savage (Green Bay Packers), Amani Hooker (Tennessee Titans)

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