Projecting the Top 10 for the 2020 NFL Season: Free Safeties

Every year the NFL Network does its top 100 countdown based on the previous season. However, that’s the past, and we want to look forward to the future. Four of our writers have put together a 14 part series, predicting our top 10 at each position. We’ve also included the most under and overrated at each position. Today, we continue the series with our top 10 free safeties.

10) Xavier Woods, Dallas Cowboys

One of the best bargain draft picks of the past few years, Woods has quietly become one of the most consistent players in the league. In just his third season with the team, he led all Cowboys defensive backs in snaps played with 1,112 and tied for the team lead in interceptions with two. Last season he ranked as the 11th best safety in passer rating against and the 12th best in yards per snap according to Pro Football Focus. Expect the former Louisiana Tech Bulldog to cash in on his next deal.

9) Marcus Williams, New Orleans Saints

Constantly remembered as the guy who missed the tackle on the Minneapolis Miracle, Williams has quietly become a steady presence in the Saints secondary. Since being drafted by New Orleans in the second round in the 2018 draft, he has started 51 games for the Saints, recording 183 tackles, 23 pass deflections, and 10 interceptions. In his best season to date last year, Williams only allowed one touchdown against, on 21 targets with a 47.8 passer rating against. A capable deep safety, along with a willing tackler in run support, he is everything teams look for in a young safety.

8) Anthony Harris, Minnesota Vikings

An emerging star in the Vikings secondary, the former undrafted free agent has quickly made a name for himself as one of the best young free safeties in the game. Finally getting a chance to start for Minnesota in 2019, Harris picked off a career-high seven passes in 14 games. Known for his incredible range, he can play center field and make plays sideline to sideline for Mike Zimmer’s defense.

7) Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears

One of the best playmakers in the entire league, Jackson is constantly changing the outcome of games and creating havoc for the Bears’ defense. While only entering his fourth season in the NFL, Jackson has recorded 184 tackles, four interceptions, 26 passes defended, and four forced fumbles. Frustrating opposing quarterbacks with his outstanding coverage skills, he was only targeted 49 times last season, allowing a passer rating of 49.9. As the bears move him back to free safety next year, look for Chicago’s defense to regain their elite form from 2018.

6) Micah Hyde, Buffalo Bills

A leader of one of the best secondaries in the game, Hyde has improved in each of his three seasons in Buffalo. A one-time pro bowler in 2017, he can disguise coverages to opposing offenses and play down in the box to help out in run support. Paired with Jordan Poyer, the duo has quickly made up one of the best safety tandems.

5) Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

Lacking the recognition of other players on this list due to the market he plays in, Byard is as steady and consistent as any player in the league. One of the best ball-hawking safeties in the game, he is always around the football and forcing turnovers for the Titans defense, leading the NFL in interceptions since 2017. Along with this, he also is not afraid to come up and make a tackle, recording over 80 of them the last three seasons.

4) Earl Thomas, Free Agent

One of the best in the game for a long time, Thomas remains among the elite free safeties after moving to Baltimore from Seattle. After a second broken leg in three seasons that ultimately ended his tenure as a Seahawk, he still possesses the range and speed to get from sideline to sideline and the diagnostic ability to understand any opposing offensive formation. While lacking the big numbers, he became accustomed to over his fall of fame career; he remains as steady as they come in the secondary. After an on the field altercation, the Ravens released Thomas after one season with the team. Wherever Thomas ends up, he is bound to add another good season to his resume.

3) Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

McCourty has been playing at a high level for a long time. One of the smartest players in the entire league, McCourty does not possess the athletic ability like other players on this list, instead, relying on instincts and technique to lead a Patriots defense that finished number one in the league last season. Even at the age of 32, he proved he can still play at an elite level in 2019, picking off five passes and recording two forced fumbles, earning him a contract extension that should keep him in New England for the remainder of his career.

2) Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

A former third-round pick, Simmons has quickly established himself among the elites in the game in just four seasons. Standing at 6’2, Simmons is everything teams look for in an elite caliber safety in the league. With underrated athletic ability, quickness and explosiveness, he can deliver hits all over the field and cover bigger receivers and tight ends. After a 93 tackle, four interception season in Denver last year, he is still looking for a long term deal with the Broncos. The team placed the franchise tag on him this offseason and hopefully work out a long term deal after the season.

1) Minkah Fitzpatrick, Pittsburgh Steelers

After a midseason swap that saw him land in the steel city, Fitzpatrick reminded the world how special a talent he is. In 14 games with the Steelers, he recorded 57 tackles, nine passes defended, and five interceptions, including a 96-yard pick-six. Fitzpatrick has a rare athletic ability that allows him to line up at free safety or corner. His strong season earned him his first ever Pro Bowl selection and All-Pro honors.

Most Overrated – Justin Simmons, Denver Broncos

Lacking the elite tackling skills like other members on this list, Simmons struggled at times in run support to bring down bigger backs last season. At just over 200 pounds, he became pushed back by offensive lineman at times when coming up into the box to make a tackle. Still, only 26 years old, under a defensive-minded coach in Vic Fangio, as he develops as a tackler, look for him to continue to struggle.

Most Underrated – Kevin Byard, Tennessee Titans

One of the best in the game at forcing turnovers, along with stuffing opposing backs, Byard remains underappreciated. Never missing a single game over his career, he has only been named to a single pro bowl and all-pro team, falling victim to players in larger markets. A sneaky good blitzer as well, Byard has racked up three sacks over his four-year career. He is the perfect fit for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s pressure heavy defense.

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