Ranking the best safeties before the 2022 NFL season originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
NFL safeties come in all shapes and sizes.
There are ball-hawks, who thrive in pass coverage and don't allow any deep balls over the top. Then there are box safeties, the hard-hitters who dominate in run defense and act like another linebacker in the middle of the field.
The best safeties, of course, can excel in multiple roles. Hall of Famers Ed Reed, Ronnie Lott and Brian Dawkins are among the best safeties in NFL history because of how they impacted the game in different ways.
So, who’s the best safety in the NFL today? Here’s the top 10 entering the 2022 season:
1. Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
Since being drafted in 2018, James has played 36 of a possible 65 games. But in those 36 games, he’s been transcendent for the Chargers. The Florida State product can cover players all over the field, including running backs, receivers and tight ends, thanks to his 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame. James’ versatility earned him the largest contract for a safety in NFL history this summer.
In contrast to James, Byard has been the model of health, not missing a single game in his first six seasons. With the NFL shifting toward more passing, Byard’s value as a dominant coverage safety has only increased. He is a two-time First-Team All-Pro (2017, 2021) and his 23 interceptions since 2016 ranks first among safeties.
Poyer struggled to find the right role before joining the Bills in 2017. He was a seventh-round pick in 2013, but Poyer’s career is clearly peaking as he enters his age-31 season. With the Bills continuing to ascend, Poyer is right at the center of it. He was named First-Team All-Pro last year with five interceptions, three sacks and 93 total tackles.
The Broncos haven’t made the playoffs in Simmons’ first six seasons, so he’s generally underrated when considering the league’s best safeties. But make no mistake – he belongs on near the top of this list. Simmons has been named Second-Team All-Pro twice in the last three years due to his impressive coverage work. With Russell Wilson in town, Simmons should get more shine in 2022.
What has Baker accomplished in his five seasons? Here are the accolades: four Pro Bowls, two First-Team All-Pros and one Second-Team All-Pro. So, yeah, Baker is firmly established as a top-tier safety. He loses some value compared to the top-four because he’s better in the box rather than in coverage, but it’s not so bad to be the league’s most feared, hard-hitting safety.
6. Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills
Hyde and Poyer pair to form the best safety duo in the NFL. They are often used interchangeably, proving how versatile each player is. Similar to his teammate, Hyde has been at his best since joining Buffalo in 2017. He was a Second-Team All-Pro in 2017 and 2021 and matched Poyer’s five interceptions last season.
In just two seasons, Winfield is already living up to the expectations that came with his name. His father was a three-time Pro Bowler, while the younger Winfield had his first appearance in 2021. As a rookie, he had an interception in Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl victory and famously threw up the peace sign at Tyreek Hill.
8. Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
Entering a contract year in 2021, Bates had the worst statistical season of his four-year career. But there’s no doubt that his leadership was crucial to Cincinnati’s Super Bowl run. Even though he will play on the franchise tag in 2022, Bates is still just two years removed from a Second-Team All-Pro campaign. Expect him to be motivated this season – for a new contract and for the Super Bowl loss.
Holland’s stellar rookie season was under-the-radar in Miami last season. He had two interceptions, 2.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, only improving as the year progressed. Holland had an impressive 84.7 PFF grade, allowing just 12 receptions on 22 targets. After Miami’s busy offseason, Holland could be the backbone of a solid defense in 2022.
10. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
After consecutive First-Team All-Pros, Fitzpatrick was used differently in 2021. Instead of serving as a ball-hawk, the Alabama product was used more to defend the run. That gave him a career-high 124 total tackles, and he was rewarded with a four-year, $73.6 million contract.
Honorable mention: Marcus Williams; Tyrann Mathieu; Jamal Adams; Quandre Diggs; Harrison Smith