Our last defensive position group has arrived, and it’s the top 10 safeties in advance of the 2022 season. Each player is listed as a strong safety (SS) or a free safety (FS) based on where he played the majority of his snaps in 2021. Free safeties are typically coverage-oriented, while strong safeties spend a lot of their time as pseudo-linebackers, hovering around the line of scrimmage as pass rushers or in run support. Despite their divergent roles, both types of safeties are critical to their teams; just look at the names on this list without their positions, and you’ll see true difference makers. However, you’ll see more free safeties on most lists like mine because the NFL has become a passing league, and a lot of strong safeties are becoming hybrid LBs. Let’s get to the rankings!
1. Kevin Byard, FS, Titans
I think there’s largely a consensus around this one, as Byard is the premier coverage safety in the NFL. His interception numbers have been strong since 2017, he has never totaled less than 80 tackles in a season as the full-time starter, and he has started every game since his second season. Last year, Byard had 5 INTs (1 for a TD), 13 passes defended, 2 forced fumbles (he returned 1 for a TD), a sack, and 88 tackles. His play on the back end covered for a poor Titans pass rush for years prior to the emergence of Jeffery Simmons, but the totality of the team’s defensive struggles blocked him from being recognized. Byard made first-team All-Pro and the Pro Bowl this year, both firsts for him since 2017 despite his sustained level of excellent play. Based on what I’ve been reading, it seems like analysts are done sleeping on the Titans’ elite defensive back.
2. Budda Baker, SS, Cardinals
Baker got off to an excellent start in his career, making the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro team as a rookie despite only starting 7 games that year. He hasn’t let up since. Baker offers a throwback style of safety play with extreme physicality. Amazingly, he has only missed 3 games in his career despite the toll on his body. Though not a tall safety (5’10”), he is always a menace around the line of scrimmage, with a career-high 147 tackles in 2019. He has added 2 sacks in each of the past two years, as well as 5 career forced fumbles and 5 career fumble recoveries. The big change in the past two years has been his INT totals. Baker has always been good in coverage, but that translated into 0 total INTs from 2017-2019. He was due to change that, and he’s now picked off 5 passes and batted 13 more over the last 2 seasons. Finally putting it all together, Baker is the long-term star in Arizona’s defense.
3. Marcus Williams, FS, Ravens
Nobody on this list is as pure of a free safety as Williams. He never starts plays near the line of scrimmage, and is truly a “free” safety based on how deeply in center field he roams. As a result, he has one career sack and averages 64 tackles per season. Conversely, he has never had less than 2 INTs in a season, with 15 total in his career. In 2021, while playing on the franchise tag, Williams had 2 INTs, 8 passes defended, a career-high 74 tackles, and a forced fumble. His numbers don’t necessarily impress on the stat sheet, but the film shows you the plays that DON’T get made because of his presence. Williams’ strong performance, combined with New Orleans’ atrocious cap situation, lead to him signing a 5-year/$70M deal in Baltimore. That defense should allow him to perform at his best, but I suspect he will have to be more involved in the run game.
4. Jessie Bates III, FS, Bengals
In this ranking, I’m accounting for Bates playing through an injury for much of the 2021 season. His numbers weren’t quite what we’re used to, but his Pro Football Reference value remained high. His normal self returned in time for the playoffs, where he was a monster. Therefore, I’m going to use his average stats from 2018-2020 for this discussion, as they were remarkably consistent. He had 3 INTs in each season, an average of 10.3 pass break-ups per year, and between 100 and 111 tackles each season. I’m expecting this stat-stuffing version of Bates to return next season; it already appeared in the 2021 postseason! Unfortunately, he and the Bengals are mired in a contract dispute that will force him to play the 2022 season under the franchise tag, a situation that he is very unhappy about.
5. Antoine Winfield Jr., FS, Buccaneers
Football definitely has an inherited aspect to it, and I don’t just mean the physical traits. The instincts, the level of preparation, and the other intangibles are critical, and Antoine Winfield Sr. clearly provided those for his son. The younger Winfield has picked off 3 passes in his young career and tallied 6 passes defended and 2 forced fumbles in each of his two pro seasons. This is remarkable consistency for a player fresh out of college, but he’s also improved a lot since his rookie year. He added 88 tackles (4 for loss) and 3 fumble recoveries in year 2 en route to his first Pro Bowl selection. Roaming the entire defense, Winfield tracks like a missile toward the ball, hitting with much more force than his 5’9″ frame might suggest. Already a defensive leader on a veteran team, he stands to improve further as he gains more experience.
6. Quandre Diggs, FS, Seahawks
Jamal Adams is the safety people think of and talk about when it comes to the Seahawks, but it’s his teammate Diggs who actually plays like a superstar. Diggs was a very good player for Detroit, but after a midseason trade to Seattle, his career really took off. He has played every game over the past two seasons with 17 passes deflected in that span and 5 INTs each year. His tackle totals have also steadily risen, culminating in a career-high 94 takedowns in 2021. Stuck on a rebuilding team, Diggs’ level hasn’t dropped a bit, and with the release of Bobby Wagner and the trade of Russell Wilson, Diggs is probably the best player at any position on that team. Unfortunately, a broken fibula suffered in week 18 this past season means he’ll likely have a late start to 2022, which is the only reason he isn’t ranked higher.
7. Minkah Fitzpatrick, FS, Steelers
Pittsburgh isn’t normally in the business of trading away first-round picks. In fact, their trade of a 2020 1st-rounder for Fitzpatrick left them without a pick in the round for the first time since 1967. This team likes to draft and develop, but they saw a star in the making in the disgruntled Dolphins safety. Fitzpatrick was annoyed with Brian Flores (who wasn’t?) about being moved around too much, preferring to stay at his natural FS position. One of the truer free safeties on this last, Fitzpatrick has never had fewer than 2 INTs or 7 passes defended in a season. Coverage is where he excels. However, an underrated part of his game concerns his tackling ability. Despite being more comfortable in a center fielder type of role, he actually tallied a career-high 124 tackles last season. He should remain a key piece of the new Steel Curtain for years to come.
8. Tyrann Mathieu, FS, Saints
It’s curious to me that KC let Mathieu walk without even attempting to re-sign him. Justin Reid is a fine replacement, but the team will soon enough learn that Mathieu’s instincts and football IQ are the factors that can’t be substituted. He played really well for KC, with 13 INTs in his 3 seasons with the team. No safety has the versatility of Mathieu; I list him as an FS, but he also plays many snaps in the box and as a slot corner. He provided 3 fumble recoveries, 6 passes defended, and 76 tackles last year, but I’m stopping here with the stats, because what he provides can’t be adequately measured. Mathieu boosts OTHER players’ stats by lining them up properly, communicating offensive looks before the snap, and preparing his teammates for what’s coming. That’s the part that Chiefs DC Steve Spagnuolo will miss most, but it’s Dennis Allen’s gain in NO.
9. Jevon Holland, FS, Dolphins
The Dolphins are pretty good at drafting safeties. Hopefully they won’t trade this one away like they did with Fitzpatrick. As a second-round rookie, Holland exceeded expectations as a versatile chess piece in the Miami defense. He played primarily at free safety, where he picked off 2 passes and batted another 10 out of the air. However, he was effective at the line of scrimmage as well, with 69 tackles and 2.5 sacks. That sack total was the best among all safeties in this top 10. Holland seems comfortable roaming in the defensive backfield but is not out of his element at other spots (even punt returner!). His lack of a large body of work keeps him at #9, but the fact that I ranked a player with 1 year of experience at all demonstrates that I expect him to take another step forward in 2022.
10. Derwin James, SS, Chargers
By pure ability, most would say that James belongs in the top 3, and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree (I like my top 2 plus a healthy Diggs a bit better, but I digress). His issue has been his sustained unlucky streak with injuries. James played only 5 games in 2019 after suffering a stress fracture in his foot, and he missed the entire 2020 season with a torn meniscus. He even missed 2 more games in 2021 with injuries. So why is he in the top 10? If you look at his 2018 and 2021 seasons, you see an elite player that few can duplicate. I list James as an SS here based on his snap breakdown, but that was decided by the slimmest of margins. He stuffed the stat sheet everywhere; in his two (mostly) full seasons, he totaled 5.5 sacks, 223 tackles, 5 INTs, 18 passes defended, and two Pro Bowl selections. Nobody else in the league can play the safety position in such a complete way, and that’s the type of player I expect him to be if he can finally get past the injury bug.