Best Safeties in the NFL 2023: Derwin James Leads the Pack With Minkah Fitzpatrick Close Behind

Best Safeties in the NFL 2023: Derwin James Leads the Pack With Minkah Fitzpatrick Close Behind

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 man-coverage defender as a safety, complemented by high-level performance as a run defender and in zone coverage. 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.

In 2022, James ranked 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.

The top safeties in the NFL going into 2023.

Safety Rankings 2-10

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.

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Though the Steelers’ defense struggled at points in 2022, especially without T.J. Watt up front, Fitzpatrick has played at a high level regardless of the supporting cast around him. He 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) Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills

The Bills faced incredibly poor injury luck at defensive back, and an early-season loss of Micah Hyde was a significant one. One of the best safeties in the NFL in 2021, Hyde demonstrated an ability to close down against the run and blitz, but he primarily specialized in coverage.

His role as a deep safety helped the rest of Buffalo’s defense play aggressively without too much worry. They had to change that approach after the first two games of the season and couldn’t sustain it after the Von Miller injury. Hyde was, in a big way, a big part of the Bills’ defensive structure and his impact was enormous.

4) 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. Byard 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. Byard has one of the lowest missed tackle rates among safeties over the last three years.

5) Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Following in the footsteps of his father (a cornerback who played for both the Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings on the outside and in the slot), 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. Those hard hits don’t come at the cost of missed tackles.

In previous years, Winfield 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 had him play in the slot much more often in 2022 — and he thrived. This is both because it highlights another one of Winfield’s many skills and also allows his pass-rush prowess to shine.

6) 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. In the 2020s, where safeties are asked to change roles almost every play, Simmons excels. Denver has asked him 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, Simmons is 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.

7) Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco 49ers

The 49ers’ Talanoa Hufanga might have been the most impactful safety in the league in 2022. His play gave 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 after only two years in the league. His consistency has been an issue, and he played better in the first half of 2022 over the second half. Between his highlights are some miscues and occasional mistakes. They’re certainly worth it, but there’s room for improvement.

8) Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills

At the beginning of 2022, Buffalo sported the best safety tandem in the NFL, with Jordan Poyer and Hyde holding down the fort. However, an injury to Poyer took him off the field for a period of time.

Poyer’s ability to click-and-close in zone coverage is up there with the best in the NFL. His turnover production in 2022 didn’t match his 2021 season, but that’s not a big deal. He still had four picks, forced quarterbacks to throw short, and had 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.

9) C.J. Gardner-Johnson

After finishing the year tied for the interception lead — after missing five games — C.J. Gardner-Johnson re-established himself as a force in the NFL as a versatile slot cover corner and safety hybrid. His ability to alter the nature of Philadelphia’s defense was evident when he was forced to miss games, and the Eagles took missteps despite their phenomenal pass rush.

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Gardner-Johnson can play multiple roles at safety and play them all well, but his ability to erase normal offensive matchups remains the biggest reason he lands on the list.

10) 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.

Top Safeties Remaining

11) Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans Saints
12) Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens
13) Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
14) Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
15) Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens
16) Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins
17) Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
18) Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears
19) Marcus Maye, New Orleans Saints
20) Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers
21) Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks
22) Duron Harmon, Las Vegas Raiders
23) Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
24) Xavier McKinney, New York Giants
25) Rodney McLeod, Indianapolis Colts
26) Jaquan Brisker, Chicago Bears
27) Jayron Kearse, Dallas Cowboys
28) John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns
29) Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
30) Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
31) Richie Grant, Atlanta Falcons
32) Kareem Jackson, Denver Broncos