Modern NFL teams are moving to coverage-first defenses and are replacing linebackers with safeties, making it all the more important that NFL teams figure out who the best safeties in the NFL are. With the explosion of dime and penny defenses, a versatile, high-level safety can change the character and effectiveness of a defense.
That’s why the top safeties in the NFL can play more than one role — gone are the days of true box safeties and single-high centerfielders. Now, the best safeties in the NFL need to rush the passer, stop the run, win in man coverage, and patrol a deep third of the field. That’s why the best safety in the NFL can do all of those things, enabling the defense around him to do anything they want.
Who’s the Best Safety in the NFL?
Given all the things he’s capable of, Los Angeles Chargers safety Derwin James is the best safety in the NFL. James is simultaneously an elite pass rusher and elite man-coverage defender as a safety, complemented by high-level performance as a run defender and zone-coverage defender. His size, fluidity, and speed give him range and a remarkable capacity to take on blockers in the run game or clog up passing lanes.
Not only that, James’ skill set makes him a matchup-eraser. Instead of the defense being subject to the whims of a superstar tight end, pass-catching running back, or big slot receiver, they can focus on what they do best while James locks down the opposing offense’s biggest threat.
He ranks in the top 10 among safeties in sacks, pressures, run stops, and yards allowed per target. That final feat is remarkable given how often he’s matched up against the opponent’s top target. His versatility has become a skeleton key that allows the coverage and front to do some truly interesting stuff that can throw offenses entirely out of sync.
Rest of the Top 10 Safeties Ranked
2) Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
Moving from Miami to Pittsburgh seemingly has turned Minkah Fitzpatrick from a good safety to a great one, and he’s found consistency between highlight plays. Before, Fitzpatrick was good for some elite stretches of play surrounded by some mediocre snaps. Now, Fitzpatrick brings it every single snap and has been unstoppable this year.
Though the Steelers’ defense has struggled, especially without T.J. Watt up front, Fitzpatrick has played at a high level regardless of the supporting cast around him. Fitzpatrick ranks second in the NFL in forced incompletion rate when targeted, and his four interceptions this year have made it tough for even elite passers to look his way.
3) Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans
Despite making two All-Pro teams, it seems like Kevin Byard has flown under the radar. The 2017 NFL interceptions leader proved in subsequent seasons that his coverage capability wasn’t a fluke — he’s been a high-level centerfielder every year he’s been in the NFL.
But what puts him up here — aside from being the best centerfielder in the NFL — is his increasing capability against the run. He doesn’t enter the box often, typically playing the force player instead of the cleanup defender. But when he does approach ball carriers, he rarely misses. He has one of the lowest missed tackle rates among safeties over the last three years.
4) Antoine Winfield, Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Following in the footsteps of his father (a slot corner for the Vikings and played on the outside for both Minnesota and Buffalo), Antoine Winfield Jr. has done an excellent job manning up against slot receivers while still playing as a traditional safety who hits harder than many linebackers in the NFL. And those hard hits don’t come at the cost of missed tackles.
In previous years, he played many more snaps as a rangy centerfielder than a slot defender. And he was excellent at keeping the deep middle clean, only rarely allowing deep receptions and often demonstrating perfect coverage in those moments. But the Buccaneers have him playing in the slot much more often this year — and he’s thriving. This is both because it highlights another one of his many skills and also allows his pass-rush prowess to shine.
5) Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos
Justin Simmons could thrive at safety in any era, whether that’s the hard-hitting run defenders of the 1970s and 1980s, the deep Cover 2 safeties of the 2000s, or rangy single-high defenders in the 2010s. And in the 2020s, where safeties are asked to change roles almost every play, Simmons excels. Denver has asked Simmons to play all those roles and hasn’t had any problems adapting to those demands.
Still, he’s best as a high safety given his prowess in coverage. Over the last three years, he’s tied for first place with Harrison Smith and Quandre Diggs in total interceptions generated when playing as a high-coverage zone defender. That insurance allows the Broncos to feel comfortable putting together dynamic rush plans and allow Patrick Surtain II to shine as a man-coverage corner.
6) Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers’ Talanoa Hufanga might be the most impactful safety in the league this year. His play has given San Francisco the ability to field premier players up front, in the second level, and in the secondary. Hufanga’s knack for finding the ball, whether in the air or the hands of a ball carrier, has been tremendous for the 49ers as their defense manufactures ways for them to win despite season-ending injuries to two quarterbacks.
Hufanga is an excellent defender in only his second year in the league. Nonetheless, he will need to be more consistent if he’s going to be the reason that the 49ers win in the playoffs. Between his highlights are some miscues and occasional mistakes. They’re certainly worth it, but there’s room for improvement.
7) Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
At the beginning of the year, the Buffalo Bills sported the best safety tandem in the NFL with Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde holding down the fort. But an early-season injury for Hyde meant they couldn’t rely on him or give him enough snaps to qualify for power rankings. Poyer has had injuries too, and the Bills have received great play from replacements like Damar Hamlin and Jaquan Johnson.
But there’s a world of difference when Poyer’s on the field. His ability to click-and-close in zone coverage is up there with the best in the NFL.
His turnover production isn’t quite what it was last year, but that’s not a big deal. He still has four picks, he’s still forcing quarterbacks to throw short, and when they do target him, he has the highest forced incompletion rate in the league at the position. He’s a great run defender too, but we don’t see much of that given how high up the Bills ask him to play.
8) Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals
After signing an enormous deal with the Cardinals, Baker turned on the jets and played better after his contract was signed than before it. Baker might be the best example of what the Cardinals have been trying to do defensively, with several players capable of playing multiple positions and confusing the defense with their roles and alignments.
While many of those players didn’t work out, Baker has demonstrated that the right technique, athleticism, balance, and willingness can produce that kind of versatile defender that can play a deep zone, line up on the line of scrimmage, or stop the run from the box. He’s still best in the box, and his range isn’t quite that of a high-level centerfielder. But his value isn’t limited because of that. The fact that the Cardinals can ask him to do anything means they always have a tool in their toolbox.
9) Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens
After leaving New Orleans for Baltimore, it would have been fair to ask if Marcus Williams could produce at a high level in another system. And though Baltimore’s defense has faltered this year, Williams has answered the call as a consistently good safety regardless of scheme or role.
He’s less versatile than the other safeties on the list and plays almost exclusively as a single-high defender, but he’s incredible at the job. Quarterbacks have thrown for a passer rating of 32.4 in his direction, and he hasn’t surrendered a touchdown. He ranks third in the NFL in yards per snap in coverage allowed, too — it’s not just picks. Though Williams hasn’t been asked to be more involved in the run game or pass rush, he’d help almost any team in the league win games.
10) Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans Saints
The Saints moved on from Williams to sign Tyrann Mathieu, and they were able to both save money and change the structure of their defense as a result. Mathieu, like James and Winfield, can line up as a slot defender and take on shifty slot receivers or big tight ends in one-on-one coverage. He’s lined up in the box to defend the run and played as a two-high and one-high safety, patrolling deep.
He’s been effective in all of those roles, though he has made mistakes from time to time that limit him from being considered an elite safety. But despite the occasional mistake in coverage or missed tackle, the Saints’ defense has a lot of uses for Mathieu and can matchup-proof their defense with Mathieu in the same way the Chargers use James.
Safety Rankings | 11-32
11) Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
12) Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
13) Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears
14) C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles
15) Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins
16) Marcus Maye, New Orleans Saints
17) Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers
18) Duron Harmon, Las Vegas Raiders
19) Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks
20) Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
21) Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
22) Jaquan Brisker, Chicago Bears
23) Jayron Kearse, Dallas Cowboys
24) John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns
25) Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
26) Xavier McKinney, New York Giants
27) Richie Grant, Atlanta Falcons
28) Kareem Jackson, Denver Broncos
29) Rodney McLeod, Indianapolis Colts
30) Ryan Neal, Seattle Seahawks
31) Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots
32) Jordan Whitehead, New York Jets