The Cincinnati Bengals lost both starting safeties — Vonn Bell and Jessie Bates III — in the early stages of NFL free agency. Chuck Pagano explains how the Bengals can replace their production heading into next season.
2023 NFL Free Agency: Ranking Top 9 Safeties on the Market
Free agency is about to open in less than a week, so before it does, let’s see who the top safeties are that could hit the market and become difference-makers for other teams.
9. Adrian Amos, Green Bay Packers
Adrian Amos is 29 years old, had 73 solo tackles on the year, five passes defended, and one pick. I think he’s a solid player who can add a veteran presence to any secondary. He’s still productive, so I think he’s going to get another opportunity in the league.
8. Julian Love, New York Giants
Julian Love only turns 25 just after free agency opens, but what I really like about him is he played cornerback in college, made the transition to safety well, and he still has room to grow in the position.
7. John Johnson III, Cleveland Browns
John Johnson III is a player who balled out with the Los Angeles Rams and played himself into a fat contract with the Cleveland Browns. It didn’t work out, he underachieved, but if you look at the Browns, almost everyone underachieved in that defense. A breath of fresh air with a new squad may be just what he needs to get back on track.
6. Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys
Donovan Wilson is a dog. I like the emotion he plays with. He makes all kind of impact plays in the run game. Even though he only had one interception, he had five sacks, so he impacts the passing game that way. I think he can be a player who helps a lot of teams.
5. Vonn Bell, Cincinnati Bengals
Vonn Bell’s 28 years old, so he’s a little longer in the tooth compared to other safeties on this list, but he’s still a productive player. He makes plays in the passing game all the time. He had his most interceptions this year with four, and we know that he can play well in the run game. Bell, whether he stays with the Cincinnati Bengals or moves on to another spot, he’ll be someone who can still help your secondary.
4. Jimmie Ward, San Francisco 49ers
Jimmie Ward is 31 years old and was forced to play in the slot this year for the San Francisco 49ers. He didn’t like it, but he still had three interceptions and five passes defended. He wants to make the move back to safety, and I think a team will allow him to do that because he played well out of position for the 49ers last year.
3. Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills
This may surprise some folks. I understand Poyer went to the Pro Bowl last year and is still playing at a high level. He had four picks in 12 games last year, but he was a little bit injured. He’s still playing well, but I dropped him a little because of his age more than anything else. But I still feel like he’s playing at a high level. He’ll probably prove me wrong because he seems like he’s going to be a Devin McCourty-like player who seems to play better as he gets older.
2. Jessie Bates III, Cincinnati Bengals
Yes, another safety from the Bengals. At 26 years old, Jessie Bates III just balls out. He’s not flashy but consistently makes plays in the passing and running games. That’s what I really like about him, and he has youth on his side, which is why I put him a spot ahead of Poyer.
1. C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles
This also may surprise you. C.J. Gardner-Johnson is only 25 years old. You may recall he played in the slot for the New Orleans Saints before moving to the Philadelphia Eagles. Once they slid him back to safety, this dude was a ballhawk. He tied for the league lead in interceptions this year, and he didn’t play the full allotment of games, he tied for the lead in only 12 games. He can continue to get better as he gets more comfortable at the safety position.
Having that position flexibility as a safety who can slide down into the corner spot, I’ve always talked about the reasons safeties are so much of an asset in the NFL today is because of the mismatches that running backs and tight ends like Travis Kelce put on the defense, especially the interior of the defense. You have a guy who can play up high and make plays on the ball and then slide down and be an efficient player in that underneath zone coverage and also locks up tight ends or backs coming out of the backfield. That’s why I feel like Gardner-Johnson is the best out of the free agent safety class in 2023.
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