The time has finally come; it’s time to complete our top ten NFL position rankings. After looking at cornerbacks, let’s look at the back-end of the defense by ranking the top ten safeties in the NFL. This is a very complex position; safeties need to be excellent in coverage, but they also are the last defense in run defense. Surprisingly, this also happens to be a position stacked with young talent, which made this list very difficult to formulate. Players such as Landon Collins, Tyrann Mathieu, Devin McCourty, Eric Weddle, and Vikings standout Anthony Harris all failed to make the list. Now, it’s time to analyze the players who actually made the list; let’s look at the top ten safeties in the NFL!
All Stats and Grades Via Pro Football Focus
#10: Lamarcus Joyner, Oakland Raiders
Collins and Mathieu both signed extravagant contracts worth $14 million per year this offseason, but it’s Lamarcus Joyner, who signed a four-year, $42 million deal with the Raiders, who was the best safety available in free agency. The 28-year-old wasn’t much of a player for the Rams in his first three seasons, but in his fourth season, ironically a contract year, he broke out. In that season, he was absolutely incredible, earning a 90.9 overall grade and a 91.2 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus. Los Angeles obviously wasn’t convinced, as they franchise-tagged the former second-round pick and never negotiated a long-term deal. They were right in a sense, as Joyner did regress to a 73.1 overall grade. However, that doesn’t mean he had a bad year. He still was a sure-fire tackler (89.9), and provided value as a pass-rusher (85.2). Furthermore, he demonstrated his versatility by playing free safety, box safety, and slot corner last season meaning his value goes beyond the statistics. Joyner may not be the elite player he was in 2017 nor a franchise-changing addition for Raiders, but he’s a very important player for any defense, and was a very smart signing in what was a very strange offseason for the Raiders.
#9: Harrison Smith, Minnesota Vikings
For the first six years of his career, Harrison Smith was the heart of the Vikings defense and one of the best safeties in football. As recently as 2017, he posted a 91.8 overall grade, a 91.7 run defense grade, and a 91.6 coverage grade. Those are ridiculous numbers in what was a career last season, but Smith’s regression was a little more than expected. His overall grade slipped to 79.7, while his coverage grade also dropped significantly to 68.7. Unlike Joyner, Smith is also two years older, and is starting to near the age where production at safety always tends to decline. Still, the 30-year-old is a really solid player for Minnesota. Both his 91.3 run defense grade and 90.3 tackling grade were still amazing last season, and like Joyner, he played free safety, box safety, slot corner, AND by the defensive line last season. It’s unlikely he’ll ever replicate his 2017 form, but another 80-grade season is a reasonable expectation for the always reliable Smith in 2019; how he performs may dictate the success of the Vikings defense, which has a high upside.
#8: John Johnson III, Los Angeles Rams
A common theme with the players on this list is very apparent; many players on this list were not drafted in the first round. In fact, John Johnson III was only the 91st player selected in the 2017 draft. Yet, he’s been a huge asset for them in their last two playoff runs. The 24-year-old is unique in that he splits his time as a box safety and as a free safety, and also spent some time at cornerback. That’s a lot of different roles for a player who’s only been in the league for two seasons, yet in spite of that, he’s thrived. In his rookie season, he posted a too-good-to-be-true 81.5 overall grade and an 82.9 coverage grade Surprisingly, he actually managed to get better in his second season. His overall grade (83.7), tackling grade (83.8), run defense grade (77.2), and coverage grade (86.4) all made notable improvements in his second season, while he also was terrific down the stretch for Los Angeles. It’s very exciting to imagine what Johnson III could have in store in his third season; he’s the best player in a very talented secondary that needs him to continue to improve in order to win a Super Bowl.
#7: Micah Hyde. Buffalo Bills
As we discussed with Casey Hayward Jr. in the top ten cornerbacks piece, the Packers appear to have a tendency of getting rid of talent, versatile players in the secondary. Micah Hyde wasn’t a spectacular player for Green Bay, but he was clearly underutilized. That’s obviously true based on what the 28-year-old has done since signing with the Bills. Ironically, in his first season with Buffalo in 2017, his grade jumped all the way to 87.7, while his coverage grade was fantastic at 90.4. Meanwhile, regression in those two grades was very slim. Hyde also is able to play multiple positions – free safety, cornerback, box safety – and does so at a very high level. Additionally, as the Bills as a whole improved down the stretch, so did Hyde, and with Buffalo expecting to be a wild card contender in 2019, we can expect him to be a critical part of their defense this season. It’s fair to say Hyde is one of the most underrated players in the NFL, as his coverage ability and flexibility is tremendous, and if Green Bay could have a do-over, they would certainly not let him leave in free agency once again.
#6: Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
Ever since they let Hyde leave, the Packers have had a glaring need at both safety positions, and that was clear last season. While first-round rookie Darnell Savage is a very intriguing player, being able to pry safety Adrian Amos away from the rival Bears on a very reasonable four-year, $37 million contract. Despite being only a fifth-round pick in 2015, the 26-year-old has been a fantastic player throughout his four-year career. That was particularly true in 2017, as he had a 90.9 overall grade and an 89.5 coverage grade despite dealing with injuries the entire season. He was able to play the entire season this season, and was very sturdy with an 85.5 coverage grade. Though he can play box safety and slot corner, Amos makes his living at the back-end of the defense, preventing the “big play” with a conservative, yet very smart play-style. He’ll never rack up many interceptions and won’t be a very flashy player as a result, but a case can be argued what he brings to the table as a “preventer” is more valuable than the skills of ball-hawking safeties, and paired with an aggressive safety in Savage, Green Bay’s secondary should be significantly better this season. Amos may be very underappreciated, but he’s put himself at the top of the second tier of safeties, though the top five players on this list are able to consider themselves part of the top tier.
#5: Jamal Adams, New York Jets
Coming out of LSU, Jamal Adams was an extremely hyped up prospect, and when they selected him with the 6th overall pick in the 2017 draft, they believed they were getting a franchise-changing talent. While Adams hasn’t reached those levels yet, he’s certainly on his way to becoming one of the best defensive players in the NFL. Year one was a difficult season for the 23-year-old; he only had a 65.5 coverage grade, and was more a box safety that an all-around talent. However, Adams definitely took a major step forward in his sophomore season. His overall defense grade (89.7) and coverage grade (89.6) both increased by over 20, while his tackling (79 grade) and pass-rushing grades (89.9 grade) also significantly improved. Furthermore, Adams is similar to Smith, in that he played both box safety and free safety, as well as slot corner and near the defensive line in different packages. He’s the prototypical do it all strong safety that lacks a clear weakness, and in his third season, we could very well see the LSU product emerge as an elite, game-changing player; he’s the face of the Jets defense and could easily compete for the top spot of this list next year.
#4: Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears
Though versatile players who can play both box safety and free safety are extremely valuable in today’s NFL, NFL fans will always have a soft spot for the prototypical free safeties that can change the game in an instant. While players such as Khalil Mack will get a lot of recognition, Eddie Jackson is a huge part of their secondary, especially after they lost Amos to the Packers. The 24-year-old is an absolute playmaker; he had an incredible 94.7 coverage grade last season, and for whatever it’s worth, he had six interceptions and three touchdowns last season. Though Jackson struggled as a tackler (48.5 grade), he was solid as a run defender (76.1 grade); he’s not a one-dimensional player. He was the best safety in football (93.2 overall grade) last season despite missing the last two weeks, plus a playoff game, due to injury, and based off how much he was able to build off of a decent rookie season (68.3 overall grade), he’s another player who could be a dominant force in his third season. There’s a chance we’re looking at the next Ed Reed, which is insane considering he was only a fourth-round pick in 2017.
#3: Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
Before we can analyze Derwin James’ elite play on the field, we have to acknowledge that we may not see him in 2019. Unfortunately, the 23-year-old suffered a stress fracture in his foot; he’ll likely be out for at least three months. That’s a major loss for the Chargers, as in just once season, James had already become the top player on their defense. There was no adjustment to the NFL needed for the 17th overall pick in the 2018 draft; his production was amazing right away, and he finished with an 87.8 overall grade, an 82.5 run defense grade, and an 87.7 coverage grade. Those are incredible numbers for a rookie, especially one that played equal time at box safety, free safety, slot corner, and near the defensive line; he thrives in the latter role as a pass rusher (84.8 pass-rushing grade). James’ versatility and transformative abilities turned the Chargers defense into a powerhouse last season; had it not been for his injury, he’d have a legitimate case to already be considered the top safety in the NFL.
#2: Earl Thomas III, Baltimore Ravens
Based on past production, I’d be crazy to not consider Earl Thomas III the best safety in the NFL. With two 90-grade seasons and two 80-grade seasons, as well as four seasons with an 89.1 coverage grade or better, he was an elite player with the Seahawks. However, this is a list that is projecting for the 2019 season, and the former Texas Longhorn’s health is a major concern. The 30-year-old suffered a lower leg fracture during Week 4 in last season, and although he was having a fantastic beginning of the season, you have to wonder how a 30-year-old will recover from his second major leg injury. Still, if he can, the Ravens will be getting an absolute bargain with the four-year, $55 million contract the signed him to; he’s amazing in coverage and has been extremely consistent when healthy. There’s not much to analyze about Thomas besides that; when healthy, he’s the best safety in football, but since we can’t count on that, he falls to the #2 spot on this list.
#1: Kevin Byard, Tennesee Titans
We all know the story by now; in a twitter dispute, NFL legend Deion Sanders didn’t even know who Kevin Byard was, and called him a “fan”. Well, after performing at a super high-quality and earning a five-year extension, it’s safe to say Byard has earned all the recognition he should be getting. The 26-year-old was fine as a rookie with a 68.5 overall grade, but it’s been his last two seasons that allowed him to receive over $70 million. The Middle Tennessee product posted an 88.4 coverage grade AND an 82 run defense grade in 2017; he’s rather balanced. He didn’t significantly improve in his third year, but he did still managed to bump up his overall grade (88.4), his run defense grade (89), and his pass-rush grade (90.1) last season. The numbers don’t lie, and neither does his ability to play multiple positions, as he practically split equal team at free safety and box safety. He can be a ball-hawking free safety, a run-stuffing box safety, a pass rusher in sub packages, and anything else you need him to; he’s the definition of a reliable safety, and although he’ll never get the appreciation he deserves playing in a small market, he’s quietly one of the top defensive players in all of football; his numbers are great, and his value goes beyond that.