NFL Safety Rankings 2023: Antoine Winfield Jr, Jessie Bates III, and Jevon Holland Battle for Top Marks

Modern NFL defenses rely upon safety play more than ever before to produce. Who are the best safeties in the NFL in 2023?

Modern NFL defenses are becoming more reliant on high-end safety and nickel play than they are on cornerback play. That makes it important to identify who the best safeties in the NFL are and how to utilize their versatile skill sets best.

Big nickel, dime, and penny personnel packages are bringing more safeties onto the field at once than ever before. But they don’t want to sacrifice too much in the run game still, forcing these 200-pound warriors into the box at record rates in replacement of linebackers.

Who’s the Best Safety in the NFL?

Antoine Winfield Jr. is the best safety in the NFL.

The 2022 NFL season was the one that elevated Antoine Winfield Jr. into stardom. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided it was best for their football team if the 5’9″ safety played a bulk of his snaps as a slot defender, often putting him in disadvantageous situations in man coverage against the other team’s best player.

And he excelled in that role. He’d spent most of his time as a Minnesota Golden Gopher and then Tampa Bay playing as a free safety on the back end. But his willingness and ability to make an impact against the run from the slot always made it a tantalizing role for him.

He’s slid back into a more traditional free safety role in 2023, but he’s still managed the second-most pressures of any safety and the most sacks. In 14 weeks of play, he’s rushed the passer 38 times, posting 15 pressures on those 38 attempts.

He’s still the same elite playmaker he was in college.

Safety Rankings 2-25

2) Jessie Bates III, Atlanta Falcons

Lou Anarumo’s defense is incredibly versatile, but Jessie Bates III is a better fit in Ryan Nielsen’s Atlanta Falcons defense. In fact, we should often see Bates playing the center-field role, which is where he fits snuggly into at the NFL level.

MORE: 2023 NFL Defense Rankings 

When he’s able to play in that single-high role, Bates flourishes. Much like Marcus Williams in New Orleans, Bates should get to sit back and read the quarterback’s intentions while driving on digs and defending the post.

Bates has proven to be an excellent fit in Atlanta, recording 101 tackles (67 solo) and a career-high five interceptions through his first 13 games with the Falcons.

3) Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins

Jevon Holland went from being a slot-only defensive weapon at the Oregon Ducks to being a surprisingly impressive free safety in the Miami Dolphins’ defense under Josh Boyer. With Vic Fangio’s well-known history, there was little doubt that he’s able to pull the same sort of coverage production from Holland as he has with so many other safeties.

But that slot history also provides him with a versatile answer defensively. Holland has alignment versatility, and even though he’s spent most of his time on the back end, Holland has proven an effective piece in the pressure game as well.

4) Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers

After things in Miami took a turn for the worse, Minkah Fitzpatrick found a home in the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense. He wanted to play as a more traditional free safety, and he has done exactly that since joining them. What was once a splashy playmaker trying to work toward consistency is now one that has found that also.

He has a nose for the football, but his coverage consistency is that of a truly elite free safety. He has the length, range, and trigger to cover serious ground on the back end, and he isn’t afraid to come forward and hit, either.

5) Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens

If anyone is surprised by how well Kyle Hamilton played as a rookie for Baltimore, it’s because they paid too much attention to his pre-draft process and not enough time watching the ball.

Hamilton was one of the best players in college football for years before draftniks picked his game apart piece by piece.

But Baltimore knew — the Ravens selected Hamilton with the 14th overall pick, and after some early-season hiccups, he was back to looking like his Notre Dame self. Will he ever look good playing in man coverage against a 5’9″ slot receiver with a 6.6 three-cone? Nope.

But his overall skill set still makes him one of the most versatile defenders in the NFL, and he should only continue to get better with more time on the field in Mike Macdonald’s defense.

6) Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

Derwin James is the perfect modern safety when healthy, but Justin Simmons is darned close. During his time with the Denver Broncos, he’s worn every hat handed to him by his many different defensive coordinators, and he’s pulled every one of them off.

He’s best as a single-high free safety, but there really isn’t a whole lot that Simmons cannot do. He hits about as hard as a modern player can without being penalized for it, which makes him a prime box candidate — a role he’s played on nearly 2,000 career snaps. But he can also turn and burn in the slot, making his versatility a defensive weapon.

7) Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco 49ers

Talanoa Hufanga may not be the most consistent coverage defender in the NFL, but his playmaking ability is top-notch, and it helped lead to an All-Pro nod in his first year as a starter.

Hufanga found a perfect landing spot in DeMeco Ryans’ coverage scheme. It allowed him to play on the back end as a split-field safety but often come forward at the snap of the ball to play a robber role underneath. This also allowed him to defend the run closer to the line of scrimmage; he is a missile in that respect.

Unfortunately, an ACL tear ended his season prematurely.

8) Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers

James’ athleticism allows him to be a matchup eraser. But the size and physicality he plays with allows the Los Angeles Chargers to play him in the box as a third linebacker. That means they do not have to sacrifice coverage in their pursuit of defending the run because he can come downhill and fill his gap responsibility.

Unfortunately, things have not gone well for James this season. We live in a world that makes life difficult for coverage defenders, and James has not been immune to lapses in coverage this season.

9) Kevin Byard, Philadelphia Eagles

Despite first-team All-Pro nods in 2017 and 2021, Kevin Byard has flown under the radar during his career as a Tennessee Titan. He topped this list a season ago and very well could have again for 2023, but James’ incredible versatility won out.

Aside from making the middle of the field a no-fly zone, Byard is also one of the most consistent tacklers in the entire sport. He hasn’t missed over 10% of his tackles since 2017 and routinely sits at under 5%. The trade to Philly should have been able to highlight his talent, but there are defensive holes that Byard’s arrival couldn’t patch.

10) Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills

The Buffalo Bills’ defense isn’t the same without Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer playing at depth together. Hyde missed most of the 2022 NFL season with an injury, and it was clear that the entire secondary was suffering because of the loss.

Hyde is one of the most cerebral coverage defenders in the game. Although he’s no slouch when asked to come downhill and defend the run, he is at his best patrolling a deep half of the field alongside his partner in crime.

11) Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills

The two Bills safeties are so inseparable that they finish one another’s sentences and follow each other on the list of top safeties. Despite losing his other half to injury last season, Jordan Poyer showed that although best with Hyde, he can thrive independent of him.

His ability to drive forward and dislodge passes at the catch point is uncanny, and he’s always had a nose for securing interceptions as well. Poyer disrupts receivers at a very high rate, but he can also come downhill and defend the run like a true box defender.

12) Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals

Budda Baker has always hovered around this area when it comes to stacking the NFL safeties. There was always hope, and even evidence, that he could elevate his game to that prime Tyrann Mathieu level. But alas, the Arizona Cardinals won’t allow us the power of ever knowing what could have been.

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Baker, like Mathieu, is an undersized, versatile weapon in the defensive backfield. But unlike Mathieu, who is best served in the slot with his eyes on the QB, Baker may be best as a box defender. Although he doesn’t make it home often, he has a knack for pressuring opposing passers when blitzing.

13) Jabril Peppers, New England Patriots

The New England Patriots have been endlessly injured on the defensive side of the ball, but Jabrill Peppers has been fantastic in 2023. It’s taken Peppers a long time to find the right fit at the NFL level.

In fact, he’s been so good for New England that Kyle Dugger has become his complement, not the other way around. Peppers could be Bill Belichick’s new Devin McCourty.

14) Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens

Marcus Williams is a free safety through and through. In fact, as a pure coverage player on the back end, only Bates may have a higher coverage ceiling than Williams. He played the single-high role admirably in New Orleans but was asked to be a bit different for the Baltimore Ravens last season.

He showed much more alignment versatility last season than he ever had before. But what was most impressive was how good he looked while doing it. Although nobody would mistake him for Brian Dawkins as a tackler, he showed much more willingness and ability in that department a season ago with the Ravens than he had as a New Orleans Saint.

However, he’s still much better in a pure coverage role 15 yards off the ball than he is elsewhere.

15) C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Detroit Lions

When it comes to versatile safeties, they don’t get much more versatile than C.J. Gardner-Johnson. The former Saint played primarily in the slot for them, proving his chops as a player forced to turn and run with opposing receivers. In 2022, despite missing five games, he proved that he could be a ball hawk on the back end, tying the NFL lead for INTs last season.

An injury slashed away most of his season, but it appears the safety could return late in the year for a playoff run.

16) Xavier McKinney, New York Giants

Things certainly haven’t been pretty for Xavier McKinney at times in 2023. He made public comments about the team’s ability, or lack thereof, to allow team leaders to lead.

“I think that from a leadership standpoint, I don’t think they’ve done a great job of letting the leaders lead and listening to the leaders and the captains,” McKinney said. “It was one of those things where you have some of your leaders, captains from a defensive standpoint, trying to switch things up and just not really being heard.”

The message was received by Wink Martindale, but it didn’t go over well.

However, McKinney is playing lights out on the back end of Martindale’s ever-aggressive defense. His time at Alabama prepared him well for a multiple role at the NFL level, and he’s succeeded in Martindale’s defense.

17) Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans Saints

Few players in the NFL have been able to meld together instincts and process the way Mathieu has. His playmaking ability has never taken away from his consistency. However, he is no longer a spring chicken, either.

But he found a new home in New Orleans last offseason, and the fit was perfect for his skill set. All defenses rely upon intelligent and fast decision-making, but the Saints’ secondary has been the best at it over the past half-decade, and it was a perfect marriage with Mathieu.

18) Grant Delpit, Cleveland Browns

Grant Delpit is an alignment-versatile safety who has found himself a role in Jim Schwartz’s defense. He can play on the back end, but he’s flourished playing in the box and in the slot. He’s been a weapon as a blitzer, and his athleticism and length have made him a menace in coverage playing from the slot.

19) Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots

Dugger entered the league as a freak height/weight/athleticism combo from Lenoir-Rhyne, and he has rounded into one of the league’s best playmakers in the box. Devin McCourty’s transition to television off the pitch might mean Dugger gets to prove his chops as a more traditional free safety.

But his best fit is likely as a defensive chess piece who can make a real impact coming forward in run defense. However, his athleticism and size can also be used as a weapon carrying backs out of the backfield and defending against streaking tight ends up the seam.

20) Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks

Quandre Diggs is one of the better free safeties in the NFL when he’s on. He possesses outstanding sideline-to-sideline range not only because he’s an NFL athlete, but also because of his processing ability on the back end.

While there is a bit of variance to his game because of his desire to dislodge the ball from opposing players and sheer aggressiveness, he’s an outstanding defensive piece to build around.

21) Jimmie Ward, Houston Texans

Jimmie Ward is a warrior. He’s spent equal parts of his career in the slot and as a free safety, depending on what the team needed more at the time. But what is magnificent about his play is that despite being 32, he slid back down to a slot-majority role yet was able to survive as a reactional athlete.

Ward continues to play anywhere he is asked to in Ryans’ defense. He’s played almost equal snaps in the box, at safety, and in the slot through Week 14.

22) Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings

Harrison Smith was long one of the most versatile safeties in the league, but that versatility was dissolved in 2022 in favor of specificity. The Vikings’ secondary was a disaster, but little of that fault lies on Harrison’s shoulders.

There has been far more alignment versatility in Brian Flores’ defense, which has facilitated success with Smith, who is an excellent pass rusher for the position. He’s in the twilight of his career but still plays at a level deserving of recognition.

23) Kamren Curl, Washington Commanders

Kamren Curl has flashed since finding the field as a seventh-round rookie in 2020. But those flashes became consistent production over the past two seasons. His tackling continues to get better and better, and his length and athleticism make him a nightmare for opposing passers in coverage. But, Curl remains at his best around the line of scrimmage.

24) Malik Hooker, Dallas Cowboys

Injuries, unfortunately, have kept Malik Hooker from consistently flashing the unbelievable playmaking ability we saw out of him at Ohio State. But since coming to Dallas in 2021, Hooker (and the Cowboys’ other two safeties) have given defensive coordinator Dan Quinn the freedom to be exotic.

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Yes, there are still a lot of Cover 3 principles in his defense, which is where we see Hooker at his best. But there have been much more split-safety coverages as well. But what has impressed me most is Hooker’s ability to evolve as a run defender. He’s been a sure tackler since becoming a Dallas Cowboy.

25) Julian Blackmon, Indianapolis Colts

The Indianapolis Colts have an odd way of finding the ability to create ball-hawking linebackers and defensive backs. Despite their bending nature, they’ve also found ways to attack the ball. Julian Blackmon has been outstanding on the back end, in the box, and in the slot for the Colts in 2023.

26) Geno Stone, Baltimore Ravens

No safety in the NFL has been more productive than Geno Stone. His six interceptions are one more than Bates after 14 weeks. But that is far from all Stone gives the Ravens’ secondary.

He’s an outstanding tackler at the second and third level and makes it difficult to take off the field, even with Hamilton and Williams also on the roster.

27) Dax Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

Every list needs a shot in the dark. Dax Hill has hardly played any football for the Cincinnati Bengals after one season with the team, but that was by design. Lou Anarumo did not want to break up Bates’ and Vonn Bell’s marriage in the back end.

Hill is a beam of light across the sky. He covers ground in a flash, and he is unprecedentedly physical for his frame.

28) Andre Cisco, Jacksonville Jaguars

Andre Cisco began showing up in a big way last season, but the third-year player has really come into his own in Year 3. He’s always been an interception merchant, dating back to his time as a Syracuse Orange safety. But he’s also become a much more refined player in coverage, even if he’s never been the best run defender.

29) Jaquan Brisker, Chicago Bears

Things weren’t always pretty in the Chicago Bears’ secondary last season. While Jaquan Brisker’s inexperience can be partially to blame, most of the issues stemmed from the non-Jaylon Johnson cornerbacks and the utter lack of a pass-rush presence. That pass-rush presence has remained M.I.A. for the Chicago Bears in 2023.

But Brisker is a pure talent. He possesses the range to play deep and cover ground from sideline to sideline. But he also has the kind of sturdy frame to survive as a force in the box while also possessing the fluidity of a cornerback in coverage.

30) Reed Blankenship, Philadelphia Eagles

The Philadelphia Eagles’ secondary is a bit of a mess, particularly over the middle of the field. However, Reed Blankenship has made a positive impact on the secondary. He’s an intelligent coverage defender in a complex defense, and he’s become a vocal leader for the Eagles’ defense.

31) Camryn Bynum, Minnesota Vikings

Camryn Bynum has been incredible for the Minnesota Vikings so far in 2023. Smith has been playing closer to the line of scrimmage, which has kept Bynum deep in coverage, where he has excelled. His ball production has been outstanding.

But he’s also not only playing on the back end. He’s spent a significant amount of time in the box and in the slot. The former California cornerback transitioned to safety at the NFL level and has really rounded into a great player in his third season.

32) Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears

The appeal of Eddie Jackson is that he is about the best you can ask for from a safety. Jackson doesn’t have the kind of elite athleticism to find himself on the top of these rankings consistently, but he is a coach’s dream. He never consistently became the kind of elite playmaker we saw early in his career, but Jackson has been good at everything asked of him.

He is best when he’s able to patrol as a split-field safety who can be aggressive reading No. 2 to No. 1, and he still shows flashes of elite playmaking ability in a downhill capacity.

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