Saturday, July 20, 2024

Who are the NFL’s best safeties? Execs, coaches and scouts help rank 2024’s top 10

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With 2024 NFL training camps on the horizon, it is again time for the league’s true insiders to make their voices heard. ESPN surveyed league executives, coaches and scouts to help us rank the top 10 players at 11 different positions, from quarterback to cornerback and all positions in between. This is the fifth edition of these rankings, and as usual, several players have moved up or fallen off last year’s lists.

A reminder of the rankings process: 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 and dozens of interviews, with research and film study help from ESPN NFL analyst Matt Bowen. In total, nearly 80 voters submitted a ballot on at least one position, and in many cases all positions. Additional voting and follow-up calls with those surveyed help us break any ties.

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 2024. This is not a five-year projection or a career achievement award. Who are the best players today?

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

This year’s safety crop features a reconfigured top three and new faces in the top 10.

Star safeties who dominated the voting in recent years had a hard time holding onto their spots. Younger safeties are being used in creative ways all over the field and are pumping out splash plays as a result.

This is a position that lacks consensus, as four players made a run at the No. 1 spot, six earned a No. 1 vote and 24 earned at least one vote.

Let’s look at the NFL’s top 10 safeties as ranked by execs, coaches and scouts.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 7
Age: 25 | Last year’s ranking: 10

Winfield had a season for the ages in 2023. He recorded six sacks, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

His 27.9% ball hawk rate was the fourth highest among defensive players targeted at least 30 times. He probably should have been higher than No. 6 in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.

The Bucs unlocked Winfield by playing him more in the post in 2023 — he was primarily a nickelback the previous season.

“He had more opportunities as a single-high defender to take throws away with his instincts, range and creating turnovers,” an NFC executive said. “He was already excellent in run support and as a blitzer, so it was the perfect combination.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 6
Age: 23 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked

The pairing of then-Ravens defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald and Hamilton was among the most brilliant in the league last season.

Macdonald, now the Seattle Seahawks head coach, deployed Hamilton all over the field, and Hamilton delivered with an All-Pro season.

Hamilton is the only player on this list with at least 10 tackles for loss (10) and 10 pass deflections (13) in 2023. He added three sacks and four interceptions, allowing 261 yards on 62 targets.

“The ultimate Swiss Army knife that was used to in every way possible last season,” an NFC scout said. “He was a defender opposing offenses had to be aware of on every snap.”

Some evaluators believe Hamilton’s lack of speed (4.59-second 40-yard dash at the 2022 NFL draft combine) limits his ability to play deep. His tight hips make him more of a straight-line runner. And the Ravens are more inclined to play him at middle linebacker in dime than as a post safety.

But all of that hasn’t limited production.

“Doesn’t fit the bill for everyone, but really important for them,” an AFC executive said. “Have to know where he is at all times. Really good instincts in the middle of the field.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 6
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 6

Splashy free agent signings don’t always pan out, but Bates has been well worth Atlanta’s four-year, $64 million investment.

Bates ranked first among safeties in ball hawk rate (28.2%) and third overall in interceptions (six).

Bates has long been excellent against the pass, but his all-around game, including run support, has improved. He finished with a career-high 132 tackles.

“What he does well is dislodging the ball — not just interceptions but disrupting what should be completions,” said an AFC executive about Bates, who finished with 11 pass deflections. “He’s been one of the more consistent safeties in the league for a long time now.”

Bates ranked sixth in back-to-back years before a sizable jump in the 2024 polls.

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 7
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 1

Fitzpatrick has been so skilled at taking the ball away from quarterbacks that a down year (by his standards) is always a surprise.

That happened in 2023, when Fitzpatrick had zero interceptions and three pass deflections — compared to 19 picks and 47 breakups through his first five seasons.

“He was playing closer to the line of scrimmage this year — not sure why, maybe they needed his leadership and instincts up there, but it hurt his bottom line,” an NFL personnel evaluator said.

But he’s still considered among the elite, with a possible path to the Hall of Fame alongside Steelers legend Troy Polamalu.

“Still a great player you have to know where he is at all times, can flip the game at any time with a big play,” a veteran AFC scout said. “Ball production always comes and goes at that position. Wasn’t his best year but still instinctive and tough. Has the playmaking knack, just not quite the same opportunities as last year.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: 9
Age: 24 | Last year’s ranking: 5

Holland has registered a top-five finish in back-to-back years thanks to his impressive savvy and instincts.

The ball production isn’t elite, with five interceptions and 21 pass deflections in three seasons. He’s going on his third defensive coordinator in three years, but he publicly expressed happiness with new coordinator Anthony Weaver, who perhaps can unlock a signature season from Holland.

“He’s got versatility to play the post, match up in man coverage, blitz and is still young and ascending,” said an AFC executive about why Holland is his No. 1 safety. “And he’s got added value with return ability.”

Holland had 16 punt returns for 110 yards in his first two seasons, and he’s returned 163 yards off his five career interceptions.

Highest ranking: 3 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: 3

While the top five features several younger players, Baker is the veteran for whom evaluators still pound the table.

He’ll be 29 in January and failed to record a pass deflection in 2023, but his statistics don’t tell his story. His toughness and tone-setting do.

“He hasn’t dropped off at all as far as his ability to close on the football, be disruptive, play with physicality, leadership, football smarts,” an NFL coordinator said. “That [Cardinals] defense really missed him early in the year when he missed a few games.”

Baker missed five games after suffering a hamstring injury during a Week 2 practice. Still, Baker’s 37% run stop win rate led all safeties with at least 100 run stop wins.

“The most urgent defensive back in the league,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. “He’s so fast to the football.”

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 27 | Last year’s ranking: 2

James was as far back as No. 9 before a few late votes pushed him into the top seven, a sizable fall from last year’s No. 2 perch.

“He did not play like a top safety last year,” an NFL coordinator said. “He did the previous two years.”

However, James — who finished the season with 125 tackles, two sacks, one interception and seven pass deflections — didn’t have much support around him. The entire Chargers defense struggled last year, allowing 362.9 yards per game (ranked 28th).

“Bet on the traits and the ability in a new system and he can remain a top guy,” an NFL personnel evaluator said.

Despite moments of brilliance, James hasn’t matched the work of his standout rookie season when he had 3.5 sacks, 105 tackles and three interceptions.

“He’s probably best in the box,” an NFL offensive assistant coach said. “Still a really good player but he’s not tops on the scouting report when you face them.”

Highest ranking: 1 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 28 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

In the mold of Hamilton, Dugger is best when close to the line of scrimmage but can play — and punish — in the open field, too.

He’s grabbed nine interceptions over the past three seasons, including two for touchdowns, and he finished last season with a career-high 107 tackles.

“He’s always been physical and a smart football player, but he’s become more of a complete player every year,” an NFL personnel executive said. “He will physically strike you.”

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

A torn ACL in late November stunted his momentum, but Hufanga has put together two quality seasons and easily made the cut for the top 10.

Hufanga, the latest star on San Francisco’s impressive defense, finished the year with 51 tackles and three interceptions despite missing the last six weeks of the season.

“Hufanga is a playmaker,” an NFL personnel evaluator said. “But I don’t love him in coverage. Has to be playing top down on the ball. But he’s incredibly instinctual and physical in that role.”

Added an NFC scout: “He plays with a great edge about him, has a nice football spirit about him.”

Highest ranking: 4 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 24 | Last year’s ranking: Honorable mention

McKinney utilized his contract year in New York well, producing three interceptions and 11 passes defended before eventually earning a four-year, $68 million deal with the Packers.

Some evaluators believe his game could take off with a better supporting cast in Green Bay.

“Versatile safety that provides scheme flexibility because of his physical attributes and athletic profile,” an NFC personnel evaluator said. “I think he’s grown over the past year in terms of his man coverage, blitz and disguise ability. He showed more this past season that he can be strategically moved around the backfield and deployed in multiple ways.”

Others believe he’s good all-around but not great at anything. “He doesn’t scare you,” an NFL coordinator said.

Honorable mentions

Justin Simmons, free agent: Simmons had three interceptions, two forced fumbles and 70 tackles with the Broncos in 2023. “Still really good but not the blue-chip player he was. More of a high-level red at this stage. Still versatile and can play in the post with leadership and smarts,” an NFL personnel evaluator said.

Jalen Pitre, Houston Texans: In his first two seasons, Pitre has recorded 231 tackles and five interceptions. “Just a good all-around safety. He’s got a chance to be a great player with time,” an AFC executive said.

Justin Reid, Kansas City Chiefs: In six NFL seasons, Reid has posted 480 tackles, eight interceptions and one defensive touchdown. “Total pro. Consistent producer who can create disruption as a box defender or in the alley. Competitive in coverage versus tight ends. Does the little things to improve your defense,” an NFL personnel evaluator said.

Marcus Williams, Baltimore Ravens: Williams has recorded five interceptions and 116 tackles in the past two seasons with the Ravens. “Not many guys who have his range. Guys who can play in the middle of the field with ball skills are rare. It’s just that he’s missed time the last two years with injury,” an NFC coordinator said.

C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles: Gardner-Johnson played only three games for the Lions last season due to a torn pectoral in Week 2. “The Eagles signed him back because their secondary was soft as s— without him. He’s a pest. Can cover in the slot, play in the post or come up and hit.”

Brian Branch, Detroit Lions: Branch had a standout rookie season; he recorded 74 tackles and three interceptions. “Has natural coverage ability so that allows him to play in the slot or over the top. He’s also an instinctive player that has a knack for finding the ball and making plays in both phases,” an NFC personnel evaluator said.

Andre Cisco, Jacksonville Jaguars: Cisco had a career-high four interceptions in 2023. “He can generate turnovers at an elite level. He’ll be a 30-plus career interception guy,” an NFC coordinator said.

Also receiving votes: Grant Delpit (Cleveland Browns), Tre’von Moehrig (Las Vegas Raiders), Ifeatu Melifonwu (Detroit Lions), Jaquan Brisker (Chicago Bears), Donovan Wilson (Dallas Cowboys), Alohi Gilman (Los Angeles Chargers), Geno Stone (Cincinnati Bengals), Jabrill Peppers (New England Patriots)

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