NFL PRR Following 2021: Safeties
Whether a safety plays over the top and ballhawks everything in sight, or in the box and stuffs every run their way, there's not doubt safeties have more value than the majority of people believe. Safety play has started to change in the NFL, due to the elite athleticism and pass catching threats of tight ends and running backs in today's NFL. Safeties are not just asked to play over the top anymore, one play they are asked to line up at linebacker level and put their nose into the pile, and the next play are asked to line up in the slot and cover shifty slot receivers. As long as they played over 400 total snaps, they'll have a chance to make the cut this year. It's become one of the most important positions on defense, and today, I'll be ranking the best at doing that job.
Quick side note: below each player's name, I am adding their overall PFF grade and how they ranked amongst other players at their position going forward; this way I don't have to waste 2-3 lines per player on what their grades were...now onto the rankings!
Photo: Associated Press/Kyusung Gong
12. Antoine Winfield Jr (Last Season: #12)
PFF Grade: 85.6 (2nd)
While I think Antoine had a great season, and despite his high PFF grade, I personally think he wasn't top 10. In 13 games, he tied for 28th in run stops with 19, but had a missed tackle percentage of 15.8%, tied for 15th most among safeties. He also allowed a reception percentage of 71.9%, which ranked 34th worst among safeties, but didn't allow a single TD and posted a passer rating allowed of 63.9, 12th among safeties. Add in 2 sacks, forced fumbles and INTs, along with 5 pass breakups, he had a pretty solid sophomore season.
11. Jayron Kearse (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 76.8 (13th)
When thinking of the Cowboys defense, everyone looks to key playmakers like Micah Parsons, Trevon Diggs, Randy Gregory, and others. Very rarely is Jayron in that conversation, and that's a damn shame. In 16 games and on 39 pass rush snaps, he recorded 11 pressures, 5 of those being a QB hit and 1 of those being a sack. In the run game, he had 30 stops, tied for 7th in the league, while posting the second lowest missed tackle rate among safeties at 2.6%. He also ranked second among safeties on this list with 75 total tackles. Across 63 targets, the most of any safety on this list, he ranked in the middle of the pack with a completion percentage of 66.7% allowed, while picking off 2 passes and allowing 2 TDs, to go with a passer rating allowed of 83.2. He did, however, lead all safeties with 9 pass breakups while playing the majority of his snaps in the box and in the slot. He provided the backend support for major playmakers in an elite Dallas defense.
10. Kyle Dugger (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 71.8 (24th)
Kyle is the first of three Pats safeties to make the list. It's impressive to have one safety on the list as it is, but having three is absurd, but Dugger is more than deserving to be here. It might surprise some why I would put him in the top 10 since he was outside the top 20 safeties per PFF. Through 15 gams, he tied for 7th among safeties with 30 run stops and had three more tackles than his teammate, Adrian Phillips, with 67, even though he did miss 10.1% of his total attempts. He allowed a 65.2% completion rate, while allowing a 59.1 passer rating, 9th lowest among all safeties. Like Jayron, he played most of his snaps in the box and in the slot, and he still managed to pick off 4 passes and break up one pass. He did allowed 2 TDs, but still played solid enough to make the top 10.
9. Jevon Holland (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 84.7 (3rd)
Jevon came into the league with a chip on his shoulder, as most believed he wasn't the best safety to come out of the draft. In hindsight, Jevon might already be a top 10 safety in the NFL, and was definitely a top 10 safety from this past season. The Phins rookie recorded 2.5 sacks and 16 pressures in 16 games, both tied for 2nd most among safeties. This is fantastic, considering he rushed the passer on only 65 snaps. Outside of rushing the passer, he was decent in run defense, stopping 11 runs and missing only 8.3% of his tackles. He allowed the 7th lowest completion percentage at 54.5%, but did allow an 88.6 passer rating. Although he allowed 4 TDs, he capitalized on mistakes by picking off 2 passes and breaking up 6 others, while also forcing a fumble.
Photo: USA Today Sport/Rich Barnes
8. Micah Hyde (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 82.0 (5th)
Micah shoots back up the list with one of his better seasons. He wasn't super great against the run, with 18 stops and a missed tackle rate of 10.3%, but he excelled when making plays against the pass, as he recorded 5 INTs, one for a TD, on just 26 targets. He allowed 69.2% completion rate and a 78.8 passer rating, ranking 45th and 21st respectively. He added 3 pass breakups and 1 forced fumble, while allowing 2 TDs. Besides INTs, Micah had a pretty decent season, but his activity around the football gets him a solid spot on the list.
7. Jimmie Ward (Last Season: Unranked)
6. Adrian Phillips (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grades in table below
This was a tough choice, but I'm giving Phillips the edge over Ward. Both safeties had two different play styles, but both exceeded where most safeties of their types don't. Jimmie played more over the top, which usually means they excel in pass defense, but Jimmie played his best against the run. Adrian Phillips played more in the box, but did the most damage against the pass. Adrian also played 17 games compared to Jimmie's 16, so that does skew the numbers a little. I put their metrics below to compare the two:
Overall Grade (Rank)
Coverage Grade (Rank)
Run Defense Grade (Rank)
Total Snap Count
Over-the-Top Alignment %
Slot Alignment %
Box Alignment %
Run Stops/Miss Tackle %
14 / 2.6%
30 / 6.4%
Completion % Allowed
Passer Rating Allowed
2 / 2
4 / 5
Although Jimmie seems to look better by this standard, Adrian was targeted 12 more times than Jimmie, giving him more opportunities to make plays and allow mistakes. In addition, the Pats don't really designate free safeties and strong safeties in their defense, but by definition, Adrian was more of a strong safety and Jimmie was more of a free safety. Both also recorded a pick six, which helps their case on this list.
So what gave Adrian the edge? Yards allowed per completion. Despite getting targeted more and allowing 10 more completions, Adrian allowed 7.7 yards per reception, 4th lowest among safeties. Jimmie ranked 36th with 11.0 yards allowed per reception. In addition, Adrian's longest pass allowed was 17 yards, shortest among safeties in the NFL. Jimmie's longest pass allowed was 47 yards, tied for the 30th longest allowed by safeties in the NFL. Even if you take away that 47 yarder, Jimmie still allows 8.75 yards per completion, keeping him outside of the top 10 in yards per reception allowed. This gives Adrian the slight edge this season.
5. Derwin James (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 78.1 (9th)
After missing 27 games over the past two seasons due to injuries, Derwin was able to hit the field for 15 games this season. Across those games, he tallied 11 pressures and 2 sacks on 27 pass rush snaps, while recording 31 run stops to the tune of a 9.6% missed tackle rate, both tied for 5th and 32nd respectively. On 58 targets, the second most among safeties on this list, he allowed the 18th lowest completion rate allowed at 60.3%, and the 15th lowest passer rating allowed at 71.9. He also recorded 2 INTs and 3 pass breakups, along with 3 forced fumbles. He played all over the Chargers defense, with 320+ snaps in the box and over the top, to go with 220+ snaps in the slot. He did allow 2 TDs, but that pales in comparison to how well he played on positive resulting snaps.
4. Justin Simmons (Last Season: #2)
PFF Grade: 74.8 (17th)
The highest ranking returning safety lands in the top 5 again for a second straight year. Simmons played great against the run and the pass, as he recorded 20 stops with a 9.6% missed tackle rate. He ranked 10th with a 59.4 passer rating allowed, while also ranking 24th with a 61.7% completion rate allowed. He tied for the most INTs among safeties with 5, while adding 7 pass breakups, ranking 3rd among safeties - giving him a grand total of 12 pass disruptions, most among safeties this season. With only 2 TDs allowed in return, to go along with 3 pressures and 1 sack on 7 pass rushes, Simmons made the most of every opportunity he got.
Photo: USA Today Sports/Isaiah J Downing
3. Kevin Byard (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 90.3 (1st)
Kevin's had an up and down career for the most part, and this season was one of his biggest ups. He was strong against the run, as he racked up 16 stops and 2 forced fumbles, including a scoop and score, while missing tackles 5.6% of the time, 7th lowest rate among safeties. He allowed a 61.2% completion rate and an 82.0 passer rating, to go along with 6 TDs, but he was targeted 49 times. In exchange, he recorded 5 INTs and 6 pass breakups, while pressuring the QB 6 times on 20 pass rushes, with 1 of those resulting in a sack. Much like his career, Kevin was up and down this year, but his ups were much higher in comparison to his lowest downs this season.
2. Devin McCourty (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 76.0 (14th)
The veteran safety rounds out the Pats safety depth on this list. He did minimal work against the run, recording just 1 stop among 44 tackles, but that's expected after playing 745 snaps over the top, compared to 252 snaps in the box and slot combined. He played lights out in coverage, allowed just 10 receptions on 22 targets, while tallying 3 INTs and 8 pass breakups and 0 TDs allowed. Teams feared going Devin's way this season, and for good reason.
1. Jordan Poyer (Last Season: Unranked)
PFF Grade: 78.2 (8th)
His PFF grade makes no sense, especially when looking at his metrics. Poyer was by far the best safety in 2021. In 16 games, he generated 9 pressures and 3 sacks on 32 pass rushes, to the tune 18 run stops and a miss tackle rate of 10.0%, Poyer played pretty solid when not dropping back into coverage. His pass defense game, however, is what put him over the top of everyone else. On 27 targets, he allowed a 46.7% completion rate, 4th lowest among safeties, while allowing 4.7 yards per reception, which was the lowest in the league. Adding in a 17 yarder being the longest pass he allowed, with 5 INTs and pass breakups while allowing 0 TDs. His most impressive metric, however, was a passer rating allowed of 15.1, the lowest in the entire NFL. His incredible pass coverage helped lead Buffalo to the best pass defense in the NFL, and made this an easy decision to rank Poyer as the best safety in the NFL.
There were a total of a whopping TEN new safeties to make the list. Out of the two that made the list last year, Winfield and Simmons, neither was able to move up the rankings. With the safety position changing rapidly over each season, I would expect a lot of movement at the position going forward. With so much change to what's asked of the position, that's why guys like Budda Baker, Jessie Bates, Tyrann Mathieu, and Harrison Smith missed out this season.
To highlight one safety in particular who is extremely overrated in my opinion, which is exactly what I said when he made my list last season, Minkah Fitzpatrick ended the season ranking 73rd out of 92 eligible safeties, with a 57.2 overall grade. Out of the 83 safeties that made my cut, he ranked 59th during the regular season. He is constantly in the conversation for top 5 safeties in the league, and I personally think he sits outside the top 15. He is definitely a playmaker, but that's moreso being in the right place at the right time, and he lets up a lot of damage to his defense when he's not making plays.
Join me next time as I cover the best tight ends of 2021!