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Top 10 safeties heading into 2021 NFL season

NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2021" premieres Sunday, Aug. 15 and will air over three consecutive weekends. Players ranked 100-41 will be revealed Sunday over the course of six hours -- each one-hour episode unveiling a new set of 10 honorees -- beginning at 4 p.m. ET. Two safeties make an appearance on the list, which is voted on by the players themselves, between Nos. 60 and 51. With that in mind, NFL Network analyst DeAngelo Hall -- a three-time Pro Bowl defensive back -- provides his own ranking of the league's top 10 safeties heading into the 2021 regular season.

Rank
10
Jordan Poyer
Buffalo Bills · FS

Slightly more athletic than his counterpart Micah Hyde, Poyer's stats may not jump off the screen like his play on tape. But I have to praise him for playing the safety position in Sean McDermott's complex defense. McDermott asks a lot of his safeties in a number of combo coverages. Poyer excels in coverage and as a blitzer, and he's a sure tackler at the point of attack. He's often one of the first guys around the ball, and I don't expect to see anything different in his age-30 season.

Rank
9
Adrian Amos
Green Bay Packers · SS

Amos is one of the most underrated safeties in the league because of the presence of other, higher-profile players in the Packers' secondary -- guys like Jaire Alexander and Darnell Savage. But having players of this caliber around him allows Amos to take chances, and with his patience and instincts, he's constantly around the ball. Last season, he tied for second among safeties with nine forced incompletions, per Pro Football Focus. He also had PFF's highest coverage grade (91.5) among safeties with a minimum of 500 snaps. Simply put, Amos makes the plays he's supposed to and the ones he's not.

Rank
8
Derwin James
Los Angeles Chargers · FS

I understand that James has missed 27 games over the last two seasons. But when he's healthy, he's just different. Honestly, he reminds me of the late, great Sean Taylor, who was a big safety but moved like a cornerback. James doesn't shy away from a challenge, which is likely the result of going against route-runner extraordinaire Keenan Allen every day in practice. James started off playing in ex-Chargers coordinator Gus Bradley's Cover 3 system, and I'm interested to see just how he is used by new coach Brandon Staley. If I were in Staley's shoes, I'd be using James in every way possible.

Rank
7
John Johnson
Cleveland Browns · SS

There's something to be said about Johnson being named a team captain last year on a unit that also featured the best cornerback in the league, Jalen Ramsey. Johnson meant so much to that Rams defense, and I'm curious to see how the unit performs without him in 2021. Now in Cleveland, Johnson has the opportunity to make a ton of plays in the Browns' Cover 3 scheme. With the fourth-highest coverage grade among safeties last season (min. 500 snaps), Johnson brings a tenacious attitude that will help the defense match Kevin Stefanski's offense. Cleveland might be the team to beat in the AFC North because of this addition.

Rank
6
Justin Simmons
Denver Broncos · FS

Simmons embodies what a great safety is: smart, communicative and instinctive. He affects the football game on every single down as a do-it-all playmaker in a division that's stacked with offensive threats. Fresh off signing a four-year, $61 million extension, Simmons has played every defensive snap since the start of the 2018 season (3,067) -- that's the longest active streak by any player, per Next Gen Stats (including playoffs). This is a testament to his dedication in every facet of the game. I spent time with Simmons' teammate, safety Kareem Jackson, at a teaching camp last month, and Jackson had nothing but praise for him, saying how deep Simmons' understanding of the defense is. It takes a certain skill set to excel in Vic Fangio's system, and Simmons has it.

Rank
5
Jessie Bates
Cincinnati Bengals · FS

The Bengals were one of the quietest teams in 2020 -- especially after Joe Burrow's season-ending injury -- but Bates' play spoke volumes. He had PFF's highest overall defensive grade (90.1) among safeties, while ranking first in the league in passing yards allowed (178), passer rating allowed (42.3) and forced incompletion percentage (34.3) in coverage among players with a minimum of 35 targets. It was reported by ESPN that the Bengals and Bates aren't likely to reach a contract extension at this time, but his production over the last three seasons (318 total tackles, 31 pass breakups and nine INTs) has him positioned to cash in as a free agent in 2022, after his rookie contract runs out -- that is, unless the Bengals tag him.

Rank
4
Jamal Adams
Seattle Seahawks · SS

Adams is another exceptional playmaker as a guy who can do anything the defense needs at any given time. He can cover deep in the post, serve as the "low hole" zone defender or blitz the passer. Every quarterback knows where No. 33 is on the field, yet he's crafty enough to make his way into the backfield. The only safety to make the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons, Adams had 9.5 sacks in 2020 (most in a single season by a defensive back since individual sacks were first tracked in 1982) and could have the most all time for a DB with a repeat performance.

Rank
3
Tyrann Mathieu
Kansas City Chiefs · FS

An undersized dude who had the odds stacked against him, Mathieu is one of my favorite players to watch. He's extremely tough and smart, but his heart and work ethic propelled him to become the elite playmaker he's been for the Kansas City Chiefs. He has 10 INTs since joining the Chiefs in 2019 (third in the league in that span, first among safeties) and has allowed a 66.0 passer rating in coverage since 2019 (fifth in the NFL among those with a minimum of 100 targets in that span, lowest among safeties), according to PFF. I love that Andy Reid and Steve Spagnuolo put their trust in Mathieu and allow him to be himself -- and it shows in his play.

Rank
2
Budda Baker
Arizona Cardinals · SS

What can I say about Baker? He's the heart and soul of Arizona's defense as a do-it-all safety. Coming off his third Pro Bowl in four NFL seasons, Baker is a physical tackler, blitzer and dominant cover guy. In fact, he is one of just two DBs to record at least 100 tackles, two sacks and two picks in 2020 (joining Jordan Poyer). Look for Baker to take on a bigger leadership role with the departure of cornerback Patrick Peterson this offseason.

Rank
1
Minkah Fitzpatrick
Pittsburgh Steelers · FS

Steelers legend Troy Polamalu was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame over the weekend, and Fitzpatrick is on his way to becoming the next great safety in Pittsburgh. Since he was traded from Miami to Pittsburgh after Week 2 of 2019, the Steelers' defense ranks top two in nearly every major defensive category, a huge leap after ranking in the bottom half in most metrics since 2018. Each week, we see how his natural talent, relentless work ethic and homework study pay off, leading him to put impressive numbers on the stat sheet. One that jumps off the page is the fact that Fitzpatrick, who has nine INTs since joining the Steelers, recorded more forced incompletions (eight) than receptions allowed (seven) last season. What's most impressive is how easy he makes playing the safety position look.

Follow DeAngelo Hall on Twitter.

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