The safety position has been evolving for years.
Once known for its heavy hitters who came crashing down into the middle to hammer receivers, safeties are now tasked with more man-to-man coverage and the ability to range on the back end. Simultaneously, blitzing has continued to be a part of the job requirement while also coming up in run support to help in sub-packages.
Today, some of the league’s finest athletes are the proverbial last lines of defense. Let’s count down the 10 best at the position headed into the 2023 campaign.
10C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Detroit Lions
Only 25 years old, Gardner-Johnson is already on his third team after signing a one-year deal with the Lions this offseason. Nonetheless, he’s proved to be one of the more versatile, talented safeties in the league.
After spending three seasons with the Saints, Gardner-Johnson was traded to the Eagles last summer as part of a cap crunch in New Orleans. He shined in Philadelphia, leading the NFL with six interceptions despite missing five games with a lacerated kidney.
9Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills
A fifth-round pick out of Iowa in 2013, Hyde became a do-it-all safety for the Packers throughout his rookie deal. During his four years in Green Bay, Hyde totaled eight interceptions and four sacks before signing with the Bills before the ’17 season.
In Buffalo, Hyde blossomed into a star, going to one Pro Bowl and twice being named a second-team All-Pro. Partnered with Jordan Poyer, Hyde has helped form the league’s best safety pairing over the past six seasons.
8Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
Speaking of Poyer, many thought he would leave Buffalo for a big free-agency deal this offseason, but he instead returned to the Bills on a two-year deal. After making his first Pro Bowl at 31 years old, Poyer is looking to continue his stellar play at an age when most players are in decline.
The Bills rely heavily on Poyer and Hyde in their scheme, utilizing the two safeties to blitz, cover and range on the back end. Poyer has excelled in all areas, totaling 24 interceptions and 11 sacks in his career.
7Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks
Diggs often gets forgotten about nationally when talking about the game’s best safeties, but that’s a gross oversight. The 30-year-old has been sensational with the Lions and Seahawks, making the Pro Bowl each of the past three years in Seattle.
An eight-year veteran, Diggs is the prototypical center-field safety. He’s notched 23 interceptions in his career while showing off excellent range and good ball skills. In a secondary now featuring second-year corner Tariq Woolen, Seattle has one of the league’s best back ends.
6Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans
The Titans are in the midst of a rebuild, and one wonders whether Byard will eventually be part of the mass exodus. The two-time first-team All-Pro has been a consistent performer in Tennessee, leading the league with eight interceptions in 2017 before nabbing 19 more over his past five campaigns.
Turning 30 years old in August, the only hole in Byard’s résumé is a Super Bowl ring. With two years left on his deal—at hefty numbers of $19.6 and $17.8 million, respectively—it’ll be interesting to see whether Byard finishes his career elsewhere.
5Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals
With the Cardinals having a full-blown fire sale in an apparent effort to get Caleb Williams or Drake Maye in the 2024 draft, Baker could be next on the way out. The best player on Arizona’s roster by a significant margin, Baker is a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro through his first six seasons.
Baker excels in all areas of the field, amassing 34 passes defensed, 32 tackles for loss, 15 quarterback hits and 7.5 sacks throughout his tenure in the desert. If traded, he’ll massively upgrade whatever unit he joins.
4Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco 49ers
Hufanga is entering only his third year, but he’s already established himself as one of the league’s rising stars, regardless of position. After becoming a starter in 2022, Hufanga became a first-team All-Pro, snatching four interceptions and two sacks along with 97 tackles.
As his career evolves, look for Hufanga to play a variety of roles in the 49ers’ defense. He has the skill set to be a rover in the secondary while also coming down and playing a key role in the box on run downs. His abilities match anybody in the game.
3Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos
Simmons has been a stalwart in the Broncos’ defense for years. Entering his eighth season in Denver, Simmons has been named a second-team All-Pro three times, but has somehow been a Pro Bowler only once.
Last year, Simmons tied with Gardner-Johnson to lead the league in interceptions (6), giving him 27 for his career. Turning 30 years old during this season, Simmons is part of a terrific secondary in Denver, playing alongside star cornerback Patrick Surtain II.
2Derwin James, Los Angeles Chargers
When James has been healthy, he’s one of the league’s best players at any position. In five years, James has missed a total of 32 games but still has three Pro Bowls and a first-team All-Pro honor to his name.
Last summer, James signed a four-year, $76 million extension with the Chargers. An elite center fielder who can also blitz like a linebacker—James had four sacks last season and 9.5 on his career—nobody has a more diverse skill set.
1Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers
Fitzpatrick tops our list because he is, at only 26 years old, on track to the Hall of Fame. Traded after two seasons with the Dolphins, Fitzpatrick has starred with the Steelers, reaching three Pro Bowls and first-team All-Pro teams.
Pittsburgh has a long history of great safeties, ranging from Troy Polamalu to Mike Wagner, and Fitzpatrick is following suit. A true free safety who has nabbed 19 interceptions and forced four fumbles, he’s a standout only beginning to enter his prime.