Execs, coaches, scouts rank NFL's top 10 safeties for 2023

Minkah Fitzpatrick has 17 interceptions in 61 games with Pittsburgh. Tommy Gilligan/USA TODAY Sports

NFL training camps are fast approaching, which means it is again time for the league's true insiders to have their say. As part of ESPN's 2023 NFL season preview, we surveyed league executives, coaches, scouts and players to help us rank the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from quarterback to cornerback and all positions in between. This is the fourth edition of these rankings, and as usual, several players have moved up or fallen off last year's lists.

By way of refresher, here's how our process works: Voters give us their best 10 players at a position, then we compile the results and rank candidates based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, along with dozens of interviews, research and film study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, more than 80 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. We had several ties, so we broke them with the help of additional voting and follow-up calls with those surveyed.

Each section includes quotes and nuggets from the voters on every ranked player -- even the honorable mentions. The objective is to identify the best players right now for 2023. This is not a five-year projection or a career achievement award. Who are the best players today? Check out who makes the list at every position on ESPN+

We will roll out a position per day over 11 days. The schedule: Off-ball linebackers (7/8), defensive tackles (7/9), edge rushers (7/10), cornerbacks (7/11), safeties (7/12), tight ends (7/13), running backs (7/14), offensive tackles (7/15), guards and centers (7/16), quarterbacks (7/17) and wide receivers (7/18).

Safety is always one of the most challenging positions to rank because of its stylistic differences.

The traditional "post" safety can play the deep ball with elite range. But in recent years, strong safeties better suited to play closer to the line of scrimmage popularized the hybrid safety/linebacker position. Jamal Adams, Landon Collins and others embodied this. They can morph into off-ball linebackers or even true edge rushers.

So voters tend to put these players into tiers, resulting in 21 players receiving at least one top-10 vote. And now, the trendy safety is a chess piece: He can do many of these things and even slide into a nickel cornerback role if necessary.

Several young players fit this mold, including a top-five safety out of the AFC East. Let's look at some of the game's top safeties as ranked by execs, coaches and scouts around the NFL.

1. Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 5
Age: 26 | Last year's ranking: 2

Fitzpatrick is back on top after perhaps his most dominant season as a pro, once again rewarding Pittsburgh for the stellar trade it made with Miami four years ago.

His 28.2% ball hawk rate led the NFL, with 11 pass breakups and six interceptions on 39 targets as the nearest defender. Fitzpatrick's ball-tracking skills are so good that he can intercept a pass and sell hot dogs at Gate B of Acrisure Stadium on the same play.

"Best in the game, and it's not close," an NFL personnel director said. "You have to keep him moving because if he's stationary, coordinators can plan for him, but every single play, there's that feeling of, where is he going to be? Post, slot, nickel, box. He's capable, willing and able to handle all of that. He's brilliant, works, studies, loves the game."

2. Derwin James Jr., Los Angeles Chargers

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 8
Age: 26 | Last year's ranking: 4

Now that James has put together two full seasons after injury-plagued 2019 and 2020 campaigns, his place in the safety pantheon has only improved.

James' well-rounded performance in 2022 included four sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and 115 tackles on his way to second-team All-Pro honors.

"Before the injuries, you saw him and thought that's going to be the next Sean Taylor," a high-ranking NFL personnel evaluator said. "The cool thing is he's played through the injuries and held up really well and is a super respected Pro Bowl player. I'm not sure he'll reach that level of J.J. [Watt] and AD [Aaron Donald] and those type of defensive players, but he works hard enough that maybe he can."

James was targeted 54 times as the nearest defender and gave up 301 yards, an average of 5.6 yards per attempt, a very solid clip.

The Chargers gave James the green-dot duties to call the defense, and in 2022, he played more matchup man-to-man coverage.

"People will try to classify him as Jamal Adams, but he's not that," said the evaluator, referring to the hybrid safety/linebacker players. "He's got range and is physical, too."

3. Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 5
Age: 29 | Last year's ranking: 1

Simmons lost his grip on the No. 1 ranking but is still in the top three for most voters. He's the classic post safety with range.

"He plays a nice, clean, smart game," an NFC exec said. "Always in the right place with ball skills and instincts... Not a splashy knock-you-out guy but the splash comes from takeaways."

Simmons recorded a career-high six interceptions despite missing five games due to injury. He had been an iron man type before 2022, missing zero games the previous four years combined.

"I saw a little drop-off, maybe because of the [thigh] injury, but he's still elite," a veteran AFC assistant coach said. "Coverage skills and football intelligence are very high."

4. Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 10
Age: 27 | Last year's ranking: 5

Scouts and coaches have applauded Baker's physicality and explosiveness. That admiration has only grown with a third consecutive top-five ranking.

Last season was emblematic of the Baker experience -- he suffered ankle and shoulder injuries but still gutted out 15 games while producing seven pass deflections, 111 tackles and a Pro Bowl nod.

Baker, who has around $27.3 million in non-guaranteed money due over the next seasons, has requested a trade from Arizona and seeks a new deal commensurate with his skill set.

"That guy won't be going anywhere," one NFL executive -- whose team would love to have a player such as Baker -- said. "That's the last guy you trade. A true difference-maker."

He can play safety, outside linebacker, slot corner or edge defender -- at 5-foot-10. And he has improved his pass coverage, with a 19.4% ball hawk rate last year.

"You can do so many things with him, and oh yeah, he's going to hit with the best of him," an NFC scout said. "He's a missile."

5. Jevon Holland, Miami Dolphins

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 23 | Last year's ranking: Honorable mention

The buzz on Holland has been building since last year when he made a significant push for the top 10 after his rookie year in Miami.

"Every time you watched Miami on cross-tape, you see No. 8 and say, that's a real guy, the next one they pay," an NFL personnel director said.

Holland has shown his versatility since being drafted in 2021. In 33 games, he has four interceptions, 17 pass deflections, two fumble recoveries, four sacks and 165 tackles.

There's a refinement to his game that coaches and scouts respect.

"He does everything -- range, can play around the box, tackles," the director said. "Ultimate chess piece."

6. Jessie Bates III, Atlanta Falcons

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 26 | Last year's ranking: 6

Personnel officials like to joke that free agency means paying "A" money for "B" players.

But when Bates agreed to a four-year, $64-million deal with Atlanta on the first day of the negotiating period in March, the reaction was... yeah, that's about right.

He's an "A" player.

Bates' seven pass deflections on 30 targets as the nearest defender garnered a 23.3% ball hawk rate.

"He's 'Justin Simmons lite' -- classic post safety who can get the football, nice clean game, won't make mistakes but not a lot of electricity to his game," an NFL personnel director said. "Not a violent player."

An AFC exec disagrees with that somewhat. "I thought his tackling improved this year, and he already had the versatility and the ball skills," the exec said.

7. Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 29 | Last year's ranking: 3

One of the game's most consistent performers, Byard promises ball production every year. He averages about four interceptions per season (27 picks in seven seasons). He's the only player on the list with five seasons of at least four interceptions.

That Byard fell four spots year over year is not indicative of a declining skill set.

"There's not really a drop-off here, it's just a byproduct of a crowded safety group and different styles of players that can play into preferences," an AFC personnel veteran said. "[Byard] is just so solid and has plus instincts. And he embodies that Mike Vrabel toughness and discipline."

8. C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Detroit Lions

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 29 | Last year's ranking: Unranked

After three seasons as a hybrid slot corner/safety in New Orleans, the Eagles acquired Gardner-Johnson via trade and played him as a full-time strong safety last season.

The payoff: He tied for the league lead with six interceptions, despite missing five games due to injury.

Yet somehow a top-10 safety was available on a one-year, $6.5-million free agency deal to Detroit.

"Watch, he'll go to Detroit, make every play and get paid next year," an NFC exec said. "It was his first year playing safety full-time so teams wanted to see him do it twice. People don't always trust what they see. But don't get it twisted, he's worth his weight in gold. He played at a super high level."

Gardner-Johnson has an aggressive style of play -- with his hitting and his talking -- that a few voters characterized as an acquired taste. He's fiery and confident, which might rankle some. But those who have gotten to know him say he loves football and brings a much-needed edge to a locker room.

9. Talanoa Hufanga, San Francisco 49ers

Highest ranking: 6 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 23 | Last year's ranking: Unranked

Hufanga impressively appeared on more than 70% of ballots. Yes, members of San Francisco's vaunted defense get plenty of built-in hype. And, yes, he has a dominant front seven working in front of him.

But evaluators have seen a natural playmaker in his 20 career starts.

"Instincts -- he gets the ball, doesn't run fast but is smart, in the right position," an NFC exec said. "In that defense, that goes a long way."

Hufanga was one of five NFL safeties with at least 95 tackles and four or more interceptions last season. On 40 targets as the nearest defender, Hufanga allowed 235 yards and deflected nine passes.

10. Antoine Winfield Jr., Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 24 | Last year's ranking: 9

Winfield won a tiebreaker with Seattle's Quandre Diggs and Baltimore's Marcus Williams.

His value comes with versatility -- Winfield can play with range in the post and can work from the slot as a nickel defender. Seven of his 80 tackles last season went for a loss. He added four sacks and one interception.

"Elite tackler, super instinctive, great ball skills and ability to turn the ball over," an NFC exec said. "Very good athlete -- just lacks some height [5-foot-9]."

Winfield played more in the slot in 2022 but expects to return to free safety -- where he played in his first two years -- this season.

Honorable mentions

Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens: Williams deflected eight passes on 20 targets for a ridiculous 40% ball hawk clip. "Stud. Would have been Pro Bowler had he stayed healthy," a veteran AFC defensive coach said. "His range sideline to sideline is among the best."

Quandre Diggs, Seattle Seahawks: "Still one of most underrated safeties," an NFL personnel evaluator said. "Big hitter with discipline and range." Diggs had 71 tackles, seven passes defended and his four interceptions were second among the Seahawks' defense. An NFC exec added: "Was coming off that [dislocated ankle] and played his best down the stretch last year. Will hit the ground running this year."

Kyle Dugger, New England Patriots: "Love his ball skills," a veteran AFC executive said. "I typically don't like the big strong safety/linebacker types because they are often limited in coverage, but in this case, I really like the player and how disruptive he is." Duggar has collected 234 tackles and seven interceptions in three NFL seasons. An NFC exec added: "Versatile, tough, smart, excellent tackler."

Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills: Poyer has tallied 706 tackles, 11 sacks and 24 interceptions in his 10-year career. "You started to see some of the athleticism start to go last year, so maybe he's lost some of his ability to cover the field, but really instinctive and smart player, does everything right," an AFC scout said.

Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills: Hyde tied for the team lead in interceptions (five) and fumble recoveries (two) in 2021. "I have no idea what to expect [coming off the neck injury]," a veteran AFC scout said. "But he's always been a really good safety and a good athlete, just older and on the decline."

Xavier McKinney, New York Giants: McKinney finished last season with 45 tackles, one sack and one forced fumble. "Young, consistent, big starting-level safety," an NFC scout said. "One of the leaders on that [Giants] defense, versatile -- not a lot of flash or high-end athletic ability compared to some of the other top safeties."

Jalen Pitre, Houston Texans: Pitre was the NFL's only player to register at least 140 tackles and five interceptions last season. "He balled out last year, it's just nobody knows it because he plays in Houston," an AFC scout said. "He's gonna be really good for a long time."

Also receiving votes: Tyrann Mathieu (New Orleans Saints), Eddie Jackson (Chicago Bears), Jeremy Chinn (Carolina Panthers), Jayron Kearse (Dallas Cowboys), Justin Reid (Kansas City Chiefs)