NFL safety rankings for the top 32 heading into 2022 led by Kevin Byard and Derwin James

The list of the top safeties in the NFL heading into 2022 is a star-studded group. Who does PFN rank as the best safety in the league?

Stacking the NFL safeties into one box is difficult, but the talent at the position is vast. Defenses are complex and vary enormously, particularly on the back end regarding safeties. There are field safeties, boundary safeties, free safeties, strong safeties, slot safeties, and box safeties. And with different defensive philosophies come various tasks.

But coverage is king in the NFL, so it is difficult to crack the top 10 if one cannot consistently produce in their specific team’s coverage scheme. That will be very important to remember for a few of the players within the top 10.

Note: Unfortunately, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s role, despite being listed in Pro Football Reference as a safety, isn’t a safety role. He played just shy of 80% of his snaps in the slot or as an outside cornerback, so it didn’t feel right to call him a safety, even though that’s the position he was drafted as. 

Top NFL safeties in 2022

1) Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

This one feels good. Before the 2021 season, Kevin Byard came in at 10 on the top safety rankings. He was a problematic evaluation in 2020 because the Titans couldn’t pass rush their way out of a paper bag, making life difficult for their secondary.

Byard is most certainly in the free safety mold, but his consistency as a tackler throughout his career makes him a complete player. He hasn’t missed more than six tackles in a season since 2017 and has kept his missed tackle percentage under 10% in that period.

But last season, the symbiotic relationship between him and Amani Hooker made for arguably the best safety duo in the NFL, battling the tandem from Buffalo that has done it together since 2017. Byard’s athleticism and explosiveness at 210 pounds make him a formidable defender. His coverage prowess makes him the best safety in the NFL.

2) Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers

When the head coach of the team talks about surrounding Derwin James with defensive talent like he’s the quarterback of the defense, you know he’s an exceptional talent.

James is a freaky athlete who can play the same role we’ve seen from Jamal Adams in New York and Seattle at times, but at a level in coverage that Adams could only dream of accomplishing. That’s not meant to diminish the Seahawks’ safety; he played on the back end more often in 2021 and didn’t look nearly as bad as social media would tell you. This has more to do with James’ abilities.

James is the Micah Parsons of defensive backs. He’s formidable in the box, can match up with receivers in the slot, and has the cognition of a free safety on the back end. Brandon Staley’s defense gives him a lot of freedom in aligning James anywhere situationally.

3) Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals

Jessie Bates III might have his massive long-term deal as the highest-paid safety in the NFL had he replicated his 2020 season throughout the entirety of 2021. However, the Bengals organization isn’t known to throw money around.

The elite version of Bates returned in the postseason. He again showed why he was the top safety on the list heading into 2021. His interception against Ryan Tannehill was a perfect storm of film study breeding route concept recognition, the confidence to trigger downhill without deep help, and the athleticism to beat the throw.

While Bates isn’t the tackler Byard is, when Bates is playing to his potential, there isn’t a better single-high free safety option in the NFL. He’s the league’s best.

4) Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals

In addition to possessing an elite name and number, Budda Baker has finally cemented himself as one of the league’s elite safeties. Despite his diminutive stature, Baker’s ability to defend the alley playing from both the slot and on the back end in split-safety looks makes him a versatile weapon on an understaffed Cardinals defense.

Despite starting names like Robert Alford and Marco Wilson at cornerback, the Cardinals produced -0.021 dropback EPA/play in 2021 and the sixth-best defense in overall EPA/play as well. Vance Joseph and Baker are a big reason for that success. Baker’s ability to wear all different kinds of hats makes Joseph’s job easier.

5) Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Antoine Winfield Jr. plays more as a single-high free safety in Tampa Bay’s defense than he did while at Minnesota. In college, his primary responsibility was as a boundary safety in an incredibly quarters-heavy scheme. After a bit of an adjustment period as a rookie (yet still showing signs of brilliance), Winfield exploded in his second season with the Buccaneers.

While Winfield’s lackluster wingspan will always make it difficult for the bowling ball-built safety to wrap up and finish consistently, he hits like an absolute freight train coming downhill. And while he doesn’t necessarily play to his 4.45 testing time, Winfield has more than enough juice to cover ground on the back end, carry receivers vertically, and click and close on passes in front of him.

His ability to recognize and trigger makes him one of the best in the game in coverage. The incredible ball skills he flashed in college showed up again in 2021 also.

6) Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens

Gregg Williams is probably out there somewhere turning down an NFL head coaching job, allegedly, but he’d be proud of how Marcus Williams has been utilized throughout the years. There are many times on tape where Williams is hardly in the frame 20 or so yards downfield at the snap.

He might be the league’s one proper free safety. Even Bates wears multiple hats on the Bengals’ defense. Williams is squarely playing in the outfield. His role will undoubtedly change after signing with the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason. After spending years not being relied upon in the run fit, we may finally see Williams as a well-rounded safety.

7) Tyrann Mathieu, New Orleans Saints

It’s always peculiar to see a team like the Kansas City Chiefs not even bother to bring back a talent like Tyrann Mathieu. It’s jaw-dropping to see the said team sign another safety to a deal spanning the same three years for only $2.5 million less over those three seasons. But Mathieu actually received less guaranteed money than his replacement in Kansas City, Justin Reid.

The craziest part is there’s a very good chance that nobody can do the job that Mathieu did in Steve Spagnuolo’s defense. Mathieu is one of the most intelligent coverage players in the NFL, if not the most intelligent.

He has the innate ability to make teammates who process match principles wrongly right with his ability to take over their responsibilities. In terms of processing and triggering, nobody is quite like Mathieu.

And yet, the Chiefs never even considered bringing him back?

8) Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills

Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer finish one another’s sentences at this point. The duo has now played together since 2017. And despite both now being decade-long players, they’ve aged like fine wine.

Despite losing All-Pro CB Tre’Davious White to injury, the Bills’ dropback EPA ranked first in the NFL, and their dropback success rate ranked second. And while there is talent at all three levels of the Buffalo defense, Poyer and Hyde are the glue. Poyer has arguably had a career year and outproduced Hyde in 2021, but Hyde is the more talented safety, albeit by a slim margin.

He’s a sure tackler, is physical enough to survive in the box, athletic and technical enough to play in the slot, and rangy enough to go sideline to sideline as a deep safety.

9) Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

Denver’s pass defense didn’t meet expectations in 2021, but it wasn’t the fault of Justin Simmons. The free safety molded defender intercepted five passes and allowed a passer rating against of just 59.4.

While he doesn’t necessarily have the coverage upside of Bates as a single-high safety, Simmons’ versatility makes him one of the best in the league. He’s played over 300 snaps in the box, 400 in a deep alignment, and 150 in the slot in each of the past four seasons. During those four seasons, the veteran has only missed 32 tackles. In that time, he’s made 92 defensive stops, which in Layman’s terms are “tackles that matter.”

It will be interesting to see how Simmons’ role changes under first-time defensive coordinator Ejiro Evero.

10) Jayron Kearse, Dallas Cowboys

Jayron Kearse is easily the most surprising name on the list. The six-year veteran had only ever topped 500 defensive snaps once in his career before teaming up with Dan Quinn in the Dallas. And if he had moved on after his one-year deal, Kearse wouldn’t be in the top 10.

Kearse’s usage is unique, and his success is tied to the Cowboys’ scheme. Quinn and the Cowboys began the season running a more diverse coverage scheme than they finished with. There were more match principles early on. But by the end of the year, they played a ton of Cover 1.

Take the thought away from Kearse’s coverage responsibility, and he flourishes as a box safety. He has the wingspan of a wandering albatross, which helped lead to nine pass breakups and two interceptions. He’s also a weapon against the run, generating 30 stops while missing only 3.2% of his tackle attempts. Kearse also proved his ability in man coverage against the likes of Travis Kelce and Darren Waller. He lacks the versatility of most others in the top 10, but Kearse excels in his role.

Top NFL safeties in 2022 | 11-32

11) Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
12) Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks
13) Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
14) Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins
15) Jamal Adams, Seattle Seahawks
16) Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
17) Marcus Maye, New Orleans Saints
18) Jeremy Chinn, Carolina Panthers
19) Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers
20) Amani Hooker, Tennessee Titans
21) Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
22) Devin McCourty, New England Patriots
23) Xavier McKinney, New York Giants
24) John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns
25) Jordan Whitehead, New York Jets
26) Tracy Walker, Detroit Lions
27) Adrian Phillips, New England Patriots
28) Justin Reid, Kansas City Chiefs
29) Kamren Curl, Washington Commanders
30) Vonn Bell, Cincinnati Bengals
31) Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots
32) Darnell Savage, Green Bay Packers

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