The NFL regular season kicks off in 16 days, when the Buffalo Bills take on the Los Angeles Rams. As we get closer and closer to September 8, I have two more weeks worth of rankings to finish up. I ranked the top cornerbacks last week. This week, I will round out the back end of the defense with the safeties.
Something I must note before we get going here… for all of my stats, I used Pro Football Reference. There were some discrepancies in the numbers between PFF’s stats and PFR’s stats. Since Pro Football Reference was more accessible (and therefore more detailed), I used that site. I was still able to get the players’ PFF grades. But stats such as “passer rating when targeted”, “completion percentage allowed”, and “missed tackle percentage” all came from Pro Football Reference.
20. SS Jayron Kearse (DAL)
19. FS Xavier McKinney (NYG)
18. SS Marcus Maye (NO)
17. SS Jeremy Chinn (CAR)
16. SS Jamal Adams (SEA)
15. FS Jimmie Ward (SF)
14. SS Harrison Smith (MIN)
13. FS Quandre Diggs (SEA)
12. FS Minkah Fitzpatrick (PIT)
11. FS Antoine Winfield Jr. (TB)
10. FS Devin McCourty (NE)
You may be thinking that Devin McCourty is too old to still in the top 10. However, the 35-year old had a great season for the Patriots in 2021. In 17 games, McCourty led all defenders with an incredible 17.4 passer rating when targeted last year. (As you will see coming up, PFF had his passer rating a bit higher and another player who had an even lower passer rating.) He also led all defenders with a 34.6 completion percentage allowed, allowing just nine receptions on 26 targets. And on top of that, McCourty did not allow one touchdown for the first time in his 12-year career. We’ll see if McCourty slows down at this stage of his career, but the former first-round pick hasn’t missed a game since 2015.
9. FS Jessie Bates III (CIN)
Jessie Bates, a key component for Cincinnati’s defense, had a drop-off in production in the 2021 regular season, but got his 2020 form back in the postseason. The 2020 Second Team All-Pro failed to record 100+ tackles for the first time in his four-year career (88), and his PFF grade sank from a 90.1 in 2020 to a 56.1 in 2021. Plus, he had a career-low in completion percentage allowed (80.0) and passer rating allowed (122.0). The Bengals franchise tagged him this offseason, giving him $12.9 million this season. However, the former 2018 second-round pick has still not reported to the Bengals yet as he awaits a new long-term deal. Assuming he plays this year, Bates is still a top 10 safety in this league.
8. FS Tyrann Mathieu (NO)
Another player who had a bit of a down season last year, Tyrann Mathieu comes in at eight for me. Although Mathieu made the Pro Bowl with his 76 tackles and three interceptions, he only had a 67.3 PFF grade. In addition, he allowed a 69.2 completion percentage, had an 88.1 passer rating when targeted, missed just eight tackles, and gave up three TDs. The 30-year old gets a fresh start this year with the Saints, having signed a three-year, $28.3 million contract to come back home to Louisiana. The Honey Badger is now the 18th-highest paid safety in the NFL. Mathieu joins a defensive backfield now consisting of CB Marshon Lattimore, CB Bradley Roby, NB C.J. Gardner-Johnson, SS Marcus Maye, and SS Daniel Sorenson, his former Kansas City teammate.
7. FS Marcus Williams (BAL)
Marcus Williams signed a five-year, $70 million deal with the Ravens on the second day of free agency this offseason, leaving the free safety position open in New Orleans for Mathieu. Williams was real solid in his five years with the Saints, and he’s only going to continue to get better. The soon-to-be 26-year old had a career-high 74 tackles last season to go along with his eight pass breakups, two INTs, and an 80.1 PFF grade. Even more impressive, Williams allowed just a 48.8 completion percentage when he was targeted last year, the second best among safeties. Similarly to New Orleans’ DBs, Baltimore’s defensive backfield is loaded now with Williams, SS Chuck Clark, CB Marlon Humphrey, CB Marcus Peters, NB Kyle Fuller, and rookie S Kyle Hamilton.
6. FS Micah Hyde (BUF)
As part of the best safety duo in the NFL, Micah Hyde is my sixth best safety. It’s pretty hard to separate him from Jordan Poyer because the two are interchangeable and equally valuable to the Bills defense but, as you’ll see coming up, Poyer put up some absurd numbers last year. As for Hyde, he had 74 tackles, 10 pass breakups, five INTs, and an 82.0 PFF grade. As for his advanced stats, Hyde allowed a 64.4 completion percentage, 371 yards, and three TDs to go with his 72.8 passer rating. It was another great season for the 31-year old, as he was named Second Team All-Pro for the second time in his career (he also got the nod in 2017 with the Bills).
Even though Hyde may not put up jaw-dropping numbers, it’s his toughness, athleticism, intelligence and coverage ability that makes him such a crucial part to the Bills defense, and one of the most underrated players in the league.
And of course, plays like this that I can’t even begin to describe.
5. SS Budda Baker (ARZ)
Budda Baker is one of the best strong safeties in the NFL. An excellent run defender, Baker has put together three seasons with an 80.0+ PFF run-defense grade. His versatility also allows him to be a great cover safety. The 2017 second-round pick had one of his best seasons from a coverage standpoint, as he allowed a 68.8 completion percentage and had a 73.4 passer rating against while giving up just 248 yards and two TDs. All were career-lows (the TDs tied a career-low) since PFR started keeping advanced stats in 2018.
On top of the advanced stats, Baker can rack up the tackles as well. He’s finished with 100+ tackles three times in his career, and came close with 98 last year. In 2019, he amassed 147 total tackles, which was fourth in the league and first among safeties. He also led the league with 104 solo tackles. Baker is a four-time Pro Bowler and a three-time All-Pro (two first team selections, one second). He is the sixth-highest paid safety, making $14.75 million per season.
4. Justin Simmons (DEN)
Justin Simmons has proved to be one of the best safeties in the league, as he was an All-Pro (Second Team) in 2019 and 2021 and a Pro Bowler in 2020. The 2016 third-round pick had 80 total tackles and five INTs last season, which was tied for fourth in the league. He also had a 59.3 completion percentage against, a 66.5 passer rating, and a career-low 7.0 missed tackle percentage. In addition, Simmons had a 74.8 PFF grade, his fifth season of having at least a 74. Another versatile DB, the 28-year old “has played over 300 snaps in the box, 400 in a deep alignment, and 150 in the slot in each of the past four seasons,” according to Pro Football Network. He is now the fifth-highest paid safety, making $15.25 million per year.
3. SS Derwin James (LAC)
Maybe the most versatile safety in the league, Derwin James is now the highest paid safety in the league after the Chargers signed him to a four-year, $76.5 million contract last week ($19.1 million AAV). James bounced back big in 2021 after missing all of 2020 with a torn meniscus, and 11 games in 2019 with a stress fracture in his foot. He played 361 snaps in the box, 326 as a traditional free safety, and 224 in the slot. He had a 78.1 PFF grade, which was surprisingly the lowest in his career (although it’s very small sample size).
However, the Chargers’ 2018 first-round pick set a career-high in tackles (118), completion percentage allowed (56.7), and passer rating allowed (63.7) last season. James is now part of a starting defensive backfield that includes CB J.C. Jackson, CB Asante Samuel Jr., NB Bryce Callahan, and FS Nassir Adderley. The Chargers are going to need all of them to stay healthy and be on their “A game” playing in the talented AFC West.
2. Kevin Byard (TEN)
One of two First Team All-Pros in 2021, Kevin Byard has consistently been one of the top safeties in the NFL. The 29-year old had 88 tackles, 13 passes defended, five INTs, and a 90.1 PFF grade. In terms of his advanced stats, Byard had a 51.7 completion percentage allowed, a 68.7 passer rating allowed, and only two missed tackles. The only knock I have on Byard is he gave up five TDs and 428 yards in coverage last season. The former third-round pick from Middle Tennessee is the eighth-highest paid safety in the NFL, making $14.1 million per season. He and SS Amani Hooker have quickly become one of the top safety duos in the NFL.
1. Jordan Poyer (BUF)
Speaking of top safety duos, Jordan Poyer makes up the other half of the top safety tandem in the NFL and is my top safety heading into the 2022 season. While Hyde is underrated, Poyer has been criminally underrated his whole career. Although I think people around the NFL are finally starting to realize just how good he really is as he FINALLY got recognized with a First Team All-Pro selection in 2021 and was just announced as the 45th best player and second-best safety in the NFL’s Top 100 rankings. (Hyde came in at 50.)
All-Pro Po has been excellent for the Bills ever since they signed him in 2017. He has recorded at least 93 tackles and two INTs each of his five seasons in Buffalo, and has accumulated 519 tackles, 42 pass breakups, 20 INTs, 10 sacks, seven forced fumbles, and seven fumble recoveries. He was the only player in the NFL last season with at least five interceptions and three sacks.
The thing that amazes me the most though is his lockdown coverage ability. According to Pro Football Reference, in 2021, Poyer allowed a 55.0 completion percentage (22 receptions on 40 targets), he had a 42.2 passer rating when targeted (which ranked second among safeties), and only gave up 245 yards through the air. However, I mentioned some discrepancies in the beginning of the article, and it’s actually a good thing for Poyer. PFF, with whatever metrics they use to track their data, said the former seventh-round pick allowed just 13 catches, 61 yards, and ZERO TDs on 27 targets for an opponent passer rating of 13.7… Yes, 13.7. They had Devin McCourty second with a passer rating of 31.8, and Marcus Williams third with a 54.2.
So, no matter which stats/metrics you use to measure Poyer, your naked eye will show you just how good he really is. He is the definition of a shutdown defender. Now the big question for the 31-year old is if/when the Bills will give him his contract extension, and for how much. He is currently the 15th-highest paid safety in the game. His age tells you not to overpay him, but his performance on the field tells you to give him the bag. We’ll see how Brandon Beane and company handle this situation as we get closer to the season. Could they extend Poyer in a few weeks, turn his cap hit into a signing bonus, and then use that money to go sign Odell Beckham Jr.? I better stop… That’s a conversation for a different day.
I will close out my 2022 rankings next week with my top kickers and punters!
Feature Image by: Brett Carlsen/Getty Images