Assessing the Best Safeties in the 2020 NFL
NFL safeties tend to be the last line of defense. They can benefit from a lot of commotion at the line of scrimmage and turn into elite ball hawks, they can help out as blitzes or run defenders, or they can be exposed as major coverage liabilities.
Two of those realities sound fantastic. The other seems like it’d be a nightmare. Collectively, it all works together to show you how difficult being a complete safety actually is and how easily the NFL’s best stand out.
To be an elite NFL safety, you need to master at least one area (coverage or run defense), and to be the very best, you probably need to excel in both.
So, who is the best safety in the NFL in 2020? Join me as I look at the top safeties en route to answering that question.
The 5 Best Safety in 2020
- Minkah Fitzpatrick – Pittsburgh Steelers
- Jamal Adams – New York Jets
- Harrison Smith – Minnesota Vikings
- Earl Thomas – Baltimore Ravens
- Derwin James – Los Angeles Chargers
Let the uproar commence. I get it, too, as there are so many good safeties in the NFL. It’s honestly rather difficult to cut a big list of quality safeties down to just five — let alone get to the best safety the NFL has to offer.
Guys like Marcus Williams, Justin Simmons, Micah Hyde, Kevin Byard, and so many others deserve a nod. Some could be argued inside this top 5 or even for the top spot, too.
This is where I’ve landed, however, and I’ll detail why each player makes the cut in a player-by-player breakdown leading to the top NFL safety in 2020.
Minkah Fitzpatrick – Pittsburgh Steelers
If we’re to make football IQ part of this (and why wouldn’t we?), Fitzpatrick has to be included. He showed in 2019 that he’s among the best safeties at diagnosing plays on the fly, reacting, and making plays on the ball.
His awareness, instincts, and athleticism allowed him to snag five picks in 2019. He turned a whopping four into touchdowns.
The versatility, instincts, awareness, and ability to adapt make Fitzpatrick one of the best safeties in the NFL, and the kid is just 23. If he’s not at the top yet, he will be in short order.
Jamal Adams – New York Jets
It could be tough to get to the top spot, as there are a lot of great safeties in the NFL. One is Jamal Adams, who is constantly swept up in trade rumors due to his elite talent.
Despite seemingly having one foot out the door in New York, Adams is a total stud that the Jets should probably appreciate a bit more. The 24-year old Tigers alum displayed his elite ability as a blitzer last year (6.5 sacks), defended seven passes, and forced two fumbles.
That’s partially attributed to how the Jets use him, as Adams is a big, physical safety that blitzes well, is a sure tackler, and knows how to play the run. He can cover, but it could be this area that keeps him from being the #1 safety.
Harrison Smith – Minnesota Vikings
One of the most complete safeties in the NFL is undoubtedly Harrison Smith, who has been a reliable starter for almost his entire career.
Now 31, it wouldn’t be that shocking to see Smith drop off in some manner, but the former Notre Dame standout is honestly as good as ever. Strong in coverage and equally effective against the run, Smith can make plays all over the field and is rarely caught with his feet stuck in mud.
Smith was as impactful as ever in 2019, as he recorded three interceptions, forced three fumbles, racked up 85 tackles, and defended 11 passes.
Earl Thomas – Baltimore Ravens
Another safety who can impact the game in a number of ways is longtime Seahawk Earl Thomas. Now with the Ravens, the 31-year-old instantly helped Baltimore rank 6th against the pass in his first season with the team.
Thomas wasn’t perfect, but there is something to be said about changing teams and still having a huge impact and being productive.
We saw that when teams targeted Thomas specifically, as Thomas allowed the lowest passer rating in 2019, as well as the second-lowest completion rate.
Thomas was able to showcase his versatility more than ever in 2019 when he was used on 54 blitzes and notched the first two sacks of his career.
Derwin James – Los Angeles Chargers
One more safety I’m high on is Derwin James, who really wasn’t able to take the next step last year thanks to missing his first 11 games.
Despite that, James graded out well in 2019 and in 2018 was one of the best safeties in the league as a rookie. In his short time in the league, James has displayed solid playmaking ability, has been a sure tackler, and has been effective in blitzes.
A strong athlete with elite versatility, James can do everything at a high level and has very few weaknesses. That may not be enough to land him at #1 overall just yet, but it could in due time.
Who’s the Best Safety in 2020?
If it weren’t for missing so many games last year, Derwin James would be my top safety in the NFL right now. Nobody offers the athleticism, range, or versatility he does.
That said, the guy who comes awfully close and has been doing it for years is Harrison Smith. The Vikings stud really doesn’t do much wrong, and he played a big hand in a Minnesota pass defense that ranked 9th in yards per attempt allowed, as well as 10th in passer rating allowed.
Had the Vikings enjoyed better quarterback play last year, Smith would have looked even better.
His stay at the top may not last much longer given his age, but for now, it’s tough to go against Harrison Smith being crowned the best safety in pro football.
For other posts on the top players in various positions and much more content beyond that, head to our NFL blog section.