2022 NFL top 10 safeties ranking: Kevin Byard, Derwin James lead talented defensive backs

We’re firmly in the dead zone of the NFL schedule, so what better way to pass the time before the start of training camp than to review various positions and roll out a top 10 list? That’s been the task here at CBS Sports for the past few days/weeks, and as we move from the offensive side of the ball to the defensive side, we’ll be looking specifically at the safety position and ranking our best players from that position group. ahead of the 2022 season.

As for how we’ve determined this list, we’ve looked at several categories, including basic stats, advanced analytics like Pro Football Focus coverage grades, along with the approximate value of Pro Football References. Because the safety position is a bit more diverse than others, with these defensive backs lining up in different areas of the field in some cases, we also try to include different types of safety on this list to represent each style of play.

With all that out of the way, let’s go inside.

honorable mentions: Micah Hyde, Quandre Diggs, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Jeremy Chinn, Jayron Kearse, Jevon Holland, Jamal Adams, Harrison Smith, Marcus Maye, Jimmie Ward

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Amos remains one of the most underrated safeties in the NFL. While he doesn’t have many highlights on his résumé, he is a solid defensive back who is seemingly always in the right position, making him one of the most complete players on this list. Last year, he lined up in the box with 317 snaps, had 573 snaps at free safety and 141 in the slot, which highlights his versatility. He has also been Pro Football Focus’ highest rated safety for the past two seasons. In 2021, opponents caught only 58.2% of their targets against Amos (his career low). That said, the six touchdowns allowed were less than ideal. One last feather to put on Amos’ hat is the durability of it. He has started every regular-season game for the Packers since 2018 and has played at least 97% of the snaps defensively during that stretch.

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Feel free to swap out Micah Hyde here if you’d like, as he and Poyer make up arguably the best safety duo in the NFL and I wouldn’t fight you too much if I felt one was better than the other. With Poyer earning first-team All-Pro honors last season and surpassing Hyde in rough value, though, this is the way I’m leaning. Poyer was tied for first among safeties in AV last season and was part of a Buffalo secondary that ranked No. 1 in the NFL in DVOA even without star corner Tre’Davious White during the second half of the year. Among the safeties who played at least 50% of the defensive snaps, Poyer had the second-highest coverage rating and allowed a receiving rate of just 48.1%. In 16 games played last season, he matched a career-high five interceptions and had a career-high three sacks.

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It’s the end of an era with Tyrann Mathieu and the Chiefs breaking ties this offseason. While he won’t be lurking in the KC secondary anymore, New Orleans is getting a great all-around weapon. The Saints will be able to line up Mathieu however they see fit. He lined up primarily at box safety (438 plays), but had a fair amount of work at free safety (280 plays) and in the slot (206). His approximate value ranked eighth in the league last year among safeties and helped him earn a second straight Pro Bowl nomination. Even as he heads home to New Orleans and away from the Chiefs, Mathieu should remain one of the best defensive playmakers the NFL has to offer.

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Antoine Winfield Jr. wasted no time making a name for himself as one of the best young safeties in the league. He helped the Bucs to a Super Bowl title in his rookie year and followed that up with a PFF coverage rating that ranked fifth among eligible safeties. The 23-year-old has tremendous vision in coverage and allowed a passer rating of just 63.9 last season. He also wasn’t responsible for a single touchdown allowed by the Bucs last season. Unlike other safeties on this list, Winfield stalks primarily as a free safety and doesn’t migrate to the slot or line up in the box too often. Still, there’s no denying that he’s one of the top pass defenders at his position. What’s even crazier is that he’s about to start his third season in the NFL.

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The strong safety is something of a dying breed with linebackers becoming more versatile, but Budda Baker is a defensive back who strikes fear into ball carriers. During his five-year career, PFF has him counting 160 stops (tackles that result in offense failure) and he’s coming off another All-Pro-caliber season in 2021. In 17 games for the Cardinals, he totaled 98 tackles and two sacks. While widely known for being one of the most physical safeties in the game and dominant against the run, he allowed a career-high 78.6 passer rating in coverage last season. Baker has also shown a lot of versatility playing free safety, lining up in the box, as well as in the slot.

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Williams just signed a five-year, $70 million deal with the Baltimore Ravens this offseason. That deal alone should tell you what kind of player we’re looking at here. The 25-year-old is one of the most consistent and elite players at his position since he came into the league. He was the seventh-highest rated player in coverage last season among eligible safety, according to PFF. Williams also allowed a passer rating of just 54.2 in 16 games played for the Saints in 2021. Unlike most of these safeties, Williams essentially plays exclusively as a free safety, logging 922 snaps at the back of the New Orleans secondary. Last season. Even without the versatility, he’s someone who raises the roof of your defense when he’s in the outfield.

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While Denver’s secondary wasn’t exactly elite in 2021 (20 against the pass in DVOA), Simmons continued to play at a high level. He was tied for second among safeties in approximate value and his 59.4 passer rating allowed was the eighth-lowest among eligible safeties last year. Simmons’ production is down statistically since his career year in 2019, but he has been much more consistent over the last three seasons compared to the first half of his six-year NFL career. The 28-year-old has also moved around within the Denver defense over the years and saw 310 snaps at box safety in 2021, but has worked heavily at the back of the secondary, seeing 639 snaps as free deep. With the Broncos’ offense poised to improve a lot this year with Russell Wilson at the helm, Simmons, along with the rest of the Denver D, could be in more advantageous positions next season.

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Bates struggled throughout the regular season, but he looked more like the elite security we’ve grown accustomed to in the postseason as the Bengals made their march to a Super Bowl appearance. During that playoff stretch, Bates totaled two interceptions, allowed opposing quarterbacks to combine for a 35.6 passer rating, and opposing receivers made just 36.4% of their targets against him. That mirrors the second-team All-Pro play we saw in 2020, so we won’t criticize Bates too much here. He should still be considered among the best safeties the NFL has to offer. The biggest question surrounding him is really more about the status of his contract and his future in Cincinnati.

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When healthy, Derwin James is as good as he gets at safety. After being limited to just five games from 2019 to 2020, the 25-year-old played 15 games for the Chargers in 2021 and turned it on. Similar to what we saw from him during his rookie season in 2018, James earned first-team All-Pro honors and was an anchor for the Los Angeles defense. He has shown the ability to work the entire field and cover all positions (running backs, tight ends and receivers) to an elite degree. He is spread out fairly evenly in the box (361 plays), in the slot (224) and as a traditional free safety (326). No matter where LA decided to line him up, James was dominant. He allowed a 71.9 QB rating overall, but was even better when he covered the gap, allowing a 68.4 QB rating (fifth-best among eligible safety). Whatever Brandon Staley has to do in the secondary, James not only can do it, but he does it possibly better than anyone else in the league. The biggest thing keeping him from being the consensus best safety in the NFL is health.

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Coverage is the name of the game in the NFL, and you’ll have to look hard to find a safety who’s a better pass defense than Byard. The Titans’ defensive back was the highest-rated safety in coverage last season by PFF and was tied for No. 1 in the NFL in approximate value among players at his position. Opposing pass receivers made just 63.5% of their goals against Byard and he racked up the stat sheet, totaling five interceptions, 13 pass breakups, 88 tackles and two forced fumbles. Aside from his ability against the pass, the 2021 first-team All-Pro is a confident tackler, missing just 2.2% of his tackle attempts last season. Byard has also been versatile throughout his career and saw plenty of action in the box (331 snaps) last season along with the more familiar spot of him running the outfield at free safety (603 snaps). He also recorded 161 plays in the slot. While he has always been among the elite safeties in the NFL, Tennessee finally established something of a passing rush in 2021 that allowed Byard to flourish.

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