Welcome back to the NFL PRR! In this series, leading up to the 2021 NFL Draft, I will be ranking the top 12 players at each position for the previous season. This is not where I believe they will rank at the end of 2021, just where they stand now. Because of this, incoming rookies will be exempt from the "Following the 2020 Season" blogs. After the draft, leading up to the 2021 NFL season, I will be ranking where I believe each player will rank after the 2021 season, including incoming rookies.
These lists will be controversial, they will raise some eyebrows, but, most importantly, they will open some eyes towards who is actually dominating in the NFL today. Without further ado, here are my top 12 safeties for the 2020 season:
Photo: USA Today
12. Antoine Winfield Jr.
The future is bright for this young stud. Antoine got better every single game and made big time plays when he needed to. He totaled 94 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 QB hits, 3 sacks, 1 INT, 6 pass deflections, and 2 FFs. This production stayed consistent through playoffs, as he forced another fumble and got an additional interception. In a year where defensive rookies struggled, Antoine played all out and made himself a name to watch out for over the next several seasons.
11. Harrison Smith
The veteran safety bounced back in a big way in 2020. In a season where every Vikings defender had a down year, Hitman flashed. He tallied 89 tackles, 2 TFLs, 5 QB hits, half a sack, 5 INTs, and 10 pass deflections. He forced no fumbles in 2020, which is normally his forte, and allowed a passer rating of 71.6. This was his highest mark in 3 seasons, but still incredibly low compared to other defenders at his position. The 32 year old still has life in him, and hopes to rebuild a shaky Viking defense.
10. Marcus Williams
Everyone remembers Marcus Williams for letting up a game winning touchdown to Stefon Diggs in the 2017 NFC Divisional Round. What people might not realize is that he has been one of the best safeties since entering the league. 2020 was another solid season for Marcus, as the free safety posted 59 tackles, 3 INTs, and 7 pass deflections. He was also the 7th highest ranked safety according to PFF, posting a 78.6 grade, and the best run defending safety, posting a 88.9 in that category. This grade is very impressive considering he is a free safety and plays more over-the-top. Marcus has been a cornerstone for a solid Saints secondary, and looks to make bigger plays in 2021.
Photo: Associated Press
9. Minkah Fitzpatrick
I don't get all the hype around Minkah. Some people consider him the best safety in the league because of his stats. A good chunk of his stats are due to him being at the right place at the right time. Over the past 2 seasons, he's had only 1 interception against a starting QB where he made a proper break on the ball. All of his other interceptions are either tipped and fall into his lap, the QB was hit as he threw and the ball fluttered out, or the passes were overthrown right to him - and those QBs were backups. Even on forced fumbles the ball seemed to fly right into his hands. Regardless, he is still a top 10 safety and is very good. He had 79 tackles, 1 TFL, 4 INTs, including a pick six, and 1 FF. Also, let me know how he struggled while in Miami, but as soon as he came to a loaded defense, he played lights out? I would be cautious when throwing Minkah's name in a "Top 3 Safety" conversation going forward. Like I said, he's very good, just not elite.
8. Kareem Jackson
The hard hitting corner-turned-safety had another solid year for the Denver Broncos. After a season where he made 89 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT and 4 pass deflections, one might question how I put Kareem above Minkah. Kareem's pass coverage was on a different level this year. Per PFF, he posted the 5th highest pass coverage grade out of all safeties with an 81.3 grade. His ferocity and presence around the football was enough to make opposing receivers nervous when they entered his area. Kareem also was quick to sprint towards receivers who entered his zone, forcing QBs to look in another direction. This allowed play making safety Justin Simmons to shine this season. Kareem doesn't fill up a stat sheet, but his impact is felt throughout the Broncos defense.
Photo: Denver Broncos
7. Tyrann Mathieu
Arguably the best safety in the league year over year, Tyrann had a great 2020 campaign. Although he posted the 2nd lowest PFF grade of his career, I personally think he had one of his best seasons yet, based on film and stats. The First-Team All Pro posted 62 tackles, 3 TFLs, 2 QB hits, a career high 6 INTs, including a pick six, and 9 pass deflections. Since, 4 of those picks were either drops by the other receiver or the QB got hit, I decided not to put him higher for the same reasons as Minkah. The difference between the two is that we've seen Tyrann thrive and be the face of a mediocre defense; we have yet to see that from Minkah. Tyrann's biggest impact is in his run defense. He does a great job filling holes from over-the-top, or squeezing gaps from the slot to inside the box.
6. Marcus Maye
Maye is the most underrated safety in the league. The do-it-all safety made 88 tackles, 4 TFLs, 2 QB hits, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 11 pass deflections, and 2 FFs. He also posted the 5th highest PFF safety grade with a 82.9. He also ranked 4th in coverage with a 85.8 grade. His playmaking isn't all stats, however. His tracking ability is one of the fastest I've seen in a longer time; plus his form tackling and gap filling are incredible. He filled a void left by Jamal Adams and made the most of it in 2020.
Photo: Associated Press
5. John Johnson III
Johnson quietly made his case for being on the best safeties in the league in 2020. When you look at his stat sheet, nothing stands out. 105 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 INT, and 8 pass deflections make to be a solid season, but his pass defense is what really stands out. He allowed 0 TDs, a 71.9 passer rating, and only 6.4 yards per completion against him. He also was the 3rd highest ranked safety per PFF, finishing 3rd in pass coverage and 6th in run defense (86.6 and 81.6 respectively). He moves to Cleveland for 2021 and looks to make a major impact on a young defense.
4. Adrian Amos
Another safety who has consistently been great throughout his career. Amos had 83 tackles, 4 TFLs, 3 QB hits, 2 sacks, 2 INTs and 9 pass deflections in 2020. These numbers don't seem outstanding, but his play in coverage was incredible. He posted the highest pass coverage grade with a 92.1 per PFF. Amos is so fast, he can cover half of the field by himself and force QBs to look elsewhere. He made acrobatic pass deflections, sideline to sideline coverage shifts, and closed down on receivers the second they caught a pass. Amos was one of the bright spots on a top 10 defense in 2020, and he looks to continue this dominance into 2021.
3. Budda Baker
The highest paid safety in the league proved why he should get paid that much. In 15 games, Budda generated 115 tackles, 7 TFLs, 3 QB hits, 2 sacks, 2 INTs, 6 pass deflections and 1 forced fumble. I should also mention his first two interceptions of his career came during this season. He posted the 7th highest run defense grade with a 80.3 per PFF. If you watched any Cardinals games this year, Budda's name came up every couple of defensive plays. His scraping speed and intensity on hits set the tone for the Cardinals defense. He also did a great job of making plays against the pass and not allowing extra yardage on runs. The defensive captain has put himself in the conversation for best safety in the league, and looks to take the top spot in 2021.
2. Justin Simmons
Simmons finally got to make some big time plays. We've been waiting for this guy to prove he's a top 5 safety in the league, and he did so in 2020. Simmons racked up 96 tackles, 3 TFLs, 5 INTs, and 9 pass deflections. He flew around the ball and made big plays when the Broncos needed them. Justin Simmons was the 8th highest overall safety with a 77.4 PFF grade, but his blitzing ability and reaction speed are the main reasons why I moved him up my list. In addition, he always seemed to know exactly where the ball was going every play, forcing ball carriers to take him head on, or bounce it in the other direction. His play making ability will keep him the top 3 for years to come.
1. Jessie Bates
What an incredible year for the breakout safety. Jessie Bates was one of the few bright spots on a pretty terrible Bengals defense. He posted 109 tackles, 2 TFLs, 1 QB hit, 3 INTs, 15 pass deflections, and 1 FF. He also allowed a 70.7 passer rating against all QBs this season. In addition, he was the highest graded safety per PFF with a 90.1 overall grade. Bates made a name for himself in 2020 with his ranging coverage, ability to fill the box, break on the ball, and hard hits when making contact. There is no question that he was the best safety in 2020, he just needs to make more plays to keep his name up there in 2021.
Photo: USA Today
Stat Source: Pro Football Focus, Pro Football Reference
The safety pool was pretty shallow in 2020, as there weren't many names that had a true outstanding season. Some guys that played great, but played on less than 400 snaps, are Jeremy Reaves, Mike Edwards, and Marcus Epps. Some other names that I was considering were Jeff Heath, Jimmie Ward, Quandre Diggs, and Malcolm Jenkins. Overall, these defenders made big plays, but were inconsistent throughout the season.
Join me next time as I cover the top 12 tight ends in 2020!