2022 NFL season’s early top-10 safeties: Derwin James at No. 1; rookies paying immediate dividends

Each week of the 2022 NFL season, the Next Gen Stats analytics team will present a different Position Power Ranking, meant to spotlight the top performances among a specific group of players. This week, we’ve assembled a list of the top 10 safeties heading into Week 4.

Before we dive in, though, a note on our methodology: To help create quantifiable rankings, we have devised a formula that yields a Next Gen Stats percentile score, which measures how a player is performing relative to his peers. The formula uses each player’s percentile score across a series of key metrics to create one composite score, indicating which players at that position performed best. We will lean on this formula to inform our rankings when applicable.

NOTE: Player percentiles are based on components such as each player’s tackling, coverage and pass-rush abilities. The metric and overall scores are based on each player’s performance in Weeks 1-3.

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  • Play-time percentage: 99
  • Tackling score: 95
  • Coverage score: 86
  • Pass-rush score: 90
  • OVERALL SCORE: 94

The highest-paid safety in the league brings one of the more unique skill sets to the sport. James wears the green dot for the Chargers’ defense (a role typically reserved for middle linebackers), making him responsible for relaying head coach Brandon Staley’s play calls to the rest of the defense. A versatile chess piece who can align all over the field, James has moved into a more traditional safety role since Staley took over in 2021 (52 percent of snaps aligned at deep safety, compared to 21 percent in his first two seasons). Nonetheless, James has still been extremely effective as a pass rusher under Staley, generating 12 pressures (fourth among defensive backs) on just 40 blitzes since 2021. The rangy playmaker also leads all DBs with 56 defensive stops (tackles on plays resulting in negative expected points added for the offense) over that time period. And that’s not to take anything away from his coverage abilities: James has allowed just 32 yards on 13 targets this season.

  • Play-time percentage: 94
  • Tackling score: 95
  • Coverage score: 90
  • Pass-rush score: 92
  • OVERALL SCORE: 93

Since taking over as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator in 2021, Dan Quinn has used nickel personnel (five defensive backs) at the second-highest rate in the NFL (79 percent of plays). Given that Quinn is also one of the last defensive play callers majoring in single-high shells (63 percent of plays since ’21, third in NFL), that means the strong safety will often line up in the box. This year, Wilson has filled that role for the Cowboys, aligning in the box almost as frequently (41 percent of the time) as he does at deep safety (44 percent). The fourth-year pro has taken advantage of his proximity to the ball, leading all safeties with four QB pressures on just 11 blitzes. Availability has been the only weak point in Wilson’s NFL career, but if he can stay healthy, opposing quarterbacks will have to account for another emerging threat on Dallas’ aggressive defense.

  • Play-time percentage: 100 
  • Tackling score: 92
  • Coverage score: 93
  • Pass-rush score: 61
  • OVERALL SCORE: 93

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The second-year safety out of USC has burst onto the scene as one of the early breakout stars of the 2022 campaign. Hufanga showed enough in his rookie season for the 49ers to feel comfortable letting Jaquiski Tartt walk in free agency, and the youngster has seamlessly slotted into the starting lineup. With a blend of speed, football IQ and relentless physicality, the 2021 fifth-rounder is yet another diamond in the rough San Francisco uncovered in the late rounds of the draft. No one doubted Hufanga’s abilities as a heat-seeking missile coming into the draft. He has lived up to that reputation in the NFL, posting twice as many run stuffs (six) as any other DB this season. But it’s his development in coverage that has rocketed him into the top three of this list. Hufanga has allowed just one reception for 9 yards on six targets this season, with an interception and three passes defensed, including this assist to teammate Tashaun Gipson.

  • Play-time percentage: 100
  • Tackling score: 94
  • Coverage score: 86
  • Pass-rush score: 79
  • OVERALL SCORE: 92

We highlighted Pitre’s versatility when he was featured a couple weeks ago in our piece on the top-10 rookie debuts, and he’s continued to be used as a Swiss Army Knife in the Texans’ revamped secondary. The rookie has not missed a snap yet in his young career, splitting time between deep safety (46 percent of snaps) and in the box (37 percent). Pitre has made plays all over the field, as he’s currently tied for the second-most stops (11) among all defensive backs, trailing only Talanoa Hufanga (14). The Baylor product had his best game yet in Week 3, making five defensive stops and showing off his ballhawking skills with two interceptions. Despite being one of two winless teams through Week 3, Houston looks to have landed two cornerstones in their secondary with Pitre and CB Derek Stingley Jr.

  • Play-time percentage: 100
  • Tackling score: 95
  • Coverage score: 87
  • Pass-rush score: 54
  • OVERALL SCORE: 91

The Steelers reset the position’s market this offseason, making Fitzpatrick the highest-paid safety in the league — well, for a couple months, until the Chargers broke the bank for Derwin James. Safe to say neither team has any regrets about these investments. Fitzpatrick is the truest free safety on this list so far, lining up deep on 85 percent of his snaps. Despite aligning at an average depth of 12.4 yards, Fitzpatrick has made 10 defensive stops this season (including a league-high seven when aligned as a deep safety). But the two-time All-Pro’s most impressive skill is his ability to process information in split seconds on the back end of the defense. That elite awareness in coverage has translated to Fitzpatrick breaking up a pass or intercepting the ball on 21.8 percent of targets since entering the league in 2018, the third-highest ballhawk rate (percentage of targets as nearest defender resulting in a pass defensed or INT) in the NFL during that span (min. 150 targets). Fitzpatrick has taken an interception to the house in four of the five years of his career, including the first pass faced by the Steelers this season.

  • Play-time percentage: 98 
  • Tackling score: 93
  • Coverage score: 65
  • Pass-rush score: 81
  • OVERALL SCORE: 87

Woods is on his third team in three seasons, but he’s playing his best football in Year 1 with the Panthers. Woods and teammate Jeremy Chinn have each aligned as deep safeties on more than 65 percent of their snaps, forming a dynamic duo that has helped Carolina allow fewer than 20 points in each of its last two games. And Woods’ impact on his new roster has been felt all over the field. As a pass rusher, his three QB pressures this season trail only Donovan Wilson’s four among safeties. In the run game, Woods has a pair of run stuffs (rushes stopped for no gain or negative yards), tied for fifth-most among all defensive backs. And in coverage, only 44.4 percent of targets with Woods as the nearest defender have been completed this season, tied for the eighth-lowest mark among safeties with at least five targets.

  • Play-time percentage: 99
  • Tackling score: 87
  • Coverage score: 80
  • Pass-rush score: 54
  • OVERALL SCORE: 86

After a year of coming off the bench as a rookie, Grant — a 2021 Next Gen Stats Draft Score “sleeper” — assumed a starting role in Year 2. His impact in the passing game has been tremendous, helping the Falcons overcome the losses of S Duron Harmon and CB Fabian Moreau. Grant, who has aligned as a deep safety on 72 percent of snaps and as a slot CB on 18 percent, has allowed a mere 26.7 passer rating when targeted as the nearest defender in 2022. His ball skills have also been on display, as his ballhawk rate of 30.0 percent ranks third among all players with 10-plus targets as the nearest defender, trailing only LB Devin Lloyd and S Marcus Williams. The Falcons have cleaned house from top to bottom recently, with a new general manager, head coach and starting QB all coming in since the start of 2021. Grant appears to be one of the new faces that is here to stay.

  • Play-time percentage: 100
  • Tackling score: 92
  • Coverage score: 74
  • Pass-rush score: 51
  • OVERALL SCORE: 85

Edwards typically came off the bench in 2020 and 2021, as the starting safety duo of Antoine Winfield Jr. and Jordan Whitehead led a Buccaneers defense that secured 24 regular season wins and a Super Bowl title. But with the latter of those two relocating to the Jets in free agency this past offseason, the onus was on Edwards to prove he was worthy of filling a starting spot. So far, he has done that and more. Edwards has aligned in various spots this season (56 percent of snaps at deep safety, 14 percent as slot CB, 16 percent as off-ball LB) and succeeded in all of them. His 11 defensive stops are tied for second-most among all defensive backs, trailing only Talanoa Hufanga’s 14. But Edwards has also made an impact through the air, as offenses targeting him as the nearest defender have a total of -8.9 expected points added in 2022 (third-lowest among safeties, behind only Minkah Fitzpatrick and Eddie Jackson). The Buccaneers boast the NFL’s No. 1 scoring defense in 2022, allowing a mere 9.0 points per game, and Edwards’ emergence is an inarguable reason why.

  • Play-time percentage: 100
  • Tackling score: 74
  • Coverage score: 87
  • Pass-rush score: 32
  • OVERALL SCORE: 84

How are the Bears 2-1 despite only having completed 23 passes through three games (19 fewer than the next-closest team)? It’s all about the defense, and the addition of Brisker — a 2022 Next Gen Stats Draft Score “sleeper” — has been a major component of that. Brisker appeared on our rundown of the top-10 rookie debuts due to his pass-coverage prowess, and that trend has not slowed down by any means since then. Only 30.0 percent of targets with Brisker as the nearest defender have been completed this season, the lowest rate among any player at any position with 10-plus targets. And even when the ball does get completed, Brisker’s sure tackling helps limit the big plays, as his 1.9 yards/target allowed as the nearest defender is tied for first (with Chargers CB Bryce Callahan) among all players with 10-plus targets. Brisker has played all over the field (51.3 percent of snaps aligned as deep safety, 13.8 percent as slot CB, 15.3 percent as off-ball LB), and he has been the definition of “instant impact” for one of the league’s most surprising teams thus far.

  • Play-time percentage: 100
  • Tackling score: 54
  • Coverage score: 73
  • Pass-rush score: 90
  • OVERALL SCORE: 82

The Dolphins are known for blitzing their defensive backs. Holland and fellow Miami safety Brandon Jones are the faces at the forefront of that effort. Jones tends to line up all over the field, while Holland has aligned at deep safety on 82.8 percent of snaps this season, but both routinely make their presence felt in the offensive backfield. Holland’s 14 QB pressures since 2021 rank second among safeties, behind only Jones’ 19. Holland’s four sacks over the same span are also second among safeties, behind Jones’ six. As it pertains to 2022 specifically, Holland has a 16.7 percent sack rate, tied for first (with Jeremy Chinn) among all defensive backs with at least five pass rushes. Holland also makes a profound impact when he stays in pass coverage. The second-year pro has three passes defensed this season, and his 50.0 percent ballhawk rate is tied for second among all players with at least five targets, trailing only Texans DB Desmond King.

HONORABLE MENTION: Budda Baker, Arizona Cardinals; Eddie Jackson, Chicago Bears; John Johnson, Cleveland Browns.

— Keegan Abdoo, Mike Band and Cole Jacobson contributed to this piece.

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