The NFL 2023 free agent period is quickly approaching. That is when teams can begin negotiating with free agents. The free agency begins on March 13, Monday, at noon, and legal tampering begins.

The following Wednesday, March 15, at 4 pm, is when any deals agreed to during the legal tampering time can be made official. All this just in time to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, Friday, March 17.

The following nine men are the last line of defense for their future teams. The highest-paid safeties are Derwin James ($19.1 million/year) and Minkah Fitzpatrick ($18.4 million/year). Let’s see if any of these men will break the bank.

9. Ryan Neal, Seattle Seahawks

Neal had a resurgent second half of the 2023 season, where he only allowed a 63.9% passer rating on a 50% completion rate. He was credited with six pass breakups and 25 defensive stops. Neal missed only 8.3% of his tackles.

For the 2022 season, Neal had 66 tackles, four for loss, one sack, one interception, and one forced fumble in 14 games.

Neal earned a 79.5 grade in both run and coverage defense.

8. Duron Harmon, Las Vegas Raiders

The Raiders had a disappointing year, but Harmon did not. He finished the year with 86 total tackles, 12 missed tackles, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles, and two interceptions. He was targeted 25 times and allowed 21 receptions.

Pro Football Focus graded him 59.8 in run defense and 77.6 in coverage.

Harmon has been used in the box against the run, as a centerfielder, and in the slot. The ten-year pro’s career numbers include 298 solo tackles, 103 assisted tackles, three fumble recoveries, and 23 interceptions.

7. Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys

Wilson was drafted in the sixth round of the 2019 NFL Draft out of Texas A&M. He makes his money playing in the box, making big hits in the run game.

In 2022 he played all 17 games. He is credited with 101 total tackles, seven tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, nine quarterback hits, five sacks, one interception, and two passes defended.

He earned a 72.9 run defense grade and a 64.5 coverage grade by PFF.

6. Devin McCourty, New England Patriots

McCourty was drafted out of Rutgers in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft. In the 2022 season, PFF graded him at a 74.8 run defense and a 67.6 coverage grade. The 13-year pro is pondering retirement.

He was targeted 21 times and allowed 12 receptions, with four interceptions. He also had 72 total tackles, four missed tackles and eight stops.

For his career, McCourty has racked up 971 total tackles, 12 forced fumbles, seven fumble recoveries, three sacks and 35 interceptions.

5. Vonn Bell, Cincinnati Bengals

Although most of the free agent safety focus is on #1 on the list, do not count out Bell. In 2022 Bell had a career-high four interceptions, one sack, eight passes defended, and two forced fumbles. He missed only 7.2% of his tackles, allowed zero touchdowns in coverage while being targeted 42 times, and allowed a passer rating of 65.1 when targeted.

PFF graded Bell 63.6 in run defense and 65.5 in coverage.

Bell has only allowed 14 touchdowns in coverage in the last four seasons.

4. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles

Yet another Eagle up for the free agency. Gardner-Johnson played both slot corner and safety.

In the 2022 season, Gardner-Johnson was the first Eagle since 1970 to have an interception in five consecutive games. Then after 12 starts, he lacerated his kidney and was placed on injured reserve.

In the regular season’s 12 games, Gardner-Johnson collected 67 total tackles, 12 missed tackles, one sack, and eight pass breakups. He was targeted 42 times and allowed 33 receptions, and his six interceptions tied for the lead in the NFL.

For the 2022 season, PFF graded Gardner-Johnson a 57.2 run defense and 65.9 coverage.

3. Jordan Poyer, Buffalo Bills

When you think of Ironmen, consider Poyer. Poyer played the season at one time or another with a hyper-extended elbow, sprained foot, rib injury (in which he rented road transportation to play the game because he couldn’t fly with the injury), collapsed lung, torn meniscus, and a concussion. And through it all, he only missed five games.

Poyer played 945 defensive snaps, with 515 at free safety, 229 in the box, and 112 at slot corner. In Poyer’s regular season games, the Bills went 12-0. He finished the regular season with four interceptions. One forced fumble and 63 total tackles. Poyer missed tackles on 13.8% of his attempts and allowed receptions on 69% of his 22 targets.

PFF graded Poyer 62.7 in coverage and 70.0 in run defense.

2. Taylor Rapp, Los Angeles Rams

Rapp was selected in the second round of the 2019 NFL Draft out of Washington. Playing on the last year of his rookie contract, he finished the season with a career-high run grade (82.3) and 72.9 in coverage per PRR.

Rapp finished the 2022 season second on the Rams in pass deflections (6) and third in tackles (92).

In the 2022 season, Rapp had 70 solo tackles, 19 assisted tackles, 6 missed tackles, and 14 stops.

Taking out the year 2020, where he only played nine games, Rapp had career 286 tackles, a career missed tackle percentage of 6.8%, 20 passes defended, and 10 interceptions. He finished his rookie campaign with more interceptions (9) than touchdowns allowed (7).

1. Jessie Bates, Cincinnati Bengals

Bates is arguably the best free safety in the league. Drafted in the second round of the 2018 Draft out of Wake Forest, Bates played the 2022 season under the franchise tag.

According to Pro Football Focus, Bates graded 84.8 run defense and 72.9 coverage in his make-it season. He also had 67 tackles, 13 stops, one forced fumble, and seven missed tackles.

Per Sports Info Solutions, Bates was targeted 22 times in coverage with nine receptions, one touchdown allowed, and four interceptions. He also had eight passes defended and 38 solo tackles.

Bates has what is called “positional versatility.” He effortlessly plays free safety and a safety spot in the nickel, or deep in the backfield, and up close on the line of scrimmage.

But perhaps most importantly, he is durable. Bates has only missed three games in five years.