Why Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton should be the No. 1 pick in the draft

No safety has been selected with the first overall pick in any pro football draft. The closest any team has come to doing it was when the Cleveland Browns took UCLA’s Eric Turner with the second overall pick in the 1991 draft. Turner had a nice career, with 30 interceptions, two Pro Bowls and one First-Team All-Pro nod over nine seasons, but he’s not the first name that comes to mind when it comes to the best safeties we’ve ever seen.

Ronnie Lott was selected with the eighth pick in the 1981 draft by the San Francisco 49ers, and Bill Walsh took the USC star because another UCLA alum — Kenny Easley — had been picked by the Seattle Seahawks fourth overall. Both men eventually made the Hall of Fame.

Regarding players in the modern era, Ed Reed was taken by the Baltimore Ravens with the 24th pick in the 2002 draft, and he wasn’t even the first defensive back selected — that was Phillip Bucannon, taken by the Oakland Raiders 17th overall. The Washington Redskins took Sean Taylor with the fifth overall pick in 2004. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Troy Polamalu with the 16th overall pick a year earlier, and the Seahawks took Texas’ Earl Thomas — who Pete Carroll has said reminded him of Polamalu — with the 14th overall pick in 2010.

You get the idea. No matter how important the safety position may be, no team has ever thought to make anybody playing that position the first overall pick. Regardless of how great that player may have been in college.

That streak will most likely continue through the 2022 NFL draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars have the first overall pick, and most mocks have them going either edge-rusher or offensive line. Solid ideas, but were I atop the org chart in Jacksonville, I would seriously consider doing something that’s never been done before.

Because it’s my belief that both the best and the most unique overall player in the 2022 draft is the same guy — Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. The three-year star and two-year starter for the Fighting Irish will likely go in the top 10 — perhaps higher — but you’ll have to find a top executive who believes that in this era, the safety position is as important as any on the field.

It’s not yet a common thought. I recently asked Daniel Jeremiah, who heads draft coverage for the NFL Network, calls games for the Los Angeles Chargers, and has spent time at NFL front offices, about this schism between value and perception.

“To me, there’s a real debate going on around the league about just how high you take safeties,” Jeremiah said, regarding the position, and Hamilton specifically. “I’m a little more biased in favor of them. You know, calling the Chargers games for the last four years and seeing every game that Derwin James has played there and the impact that position can make, and think back to my time with the Baltimore Ravens and seeing what Ed Reed could do.

“So, I don’t necessarily agree with the conventional wisdom on that, of how high you take a safety. I think this kid is pretty unique. He’s so tall and long and rangy. The ability to make plays from the deep middle as well as to drop down and play down low and be a physical player, he can erase tight ends.”

Derwin James’ name will come up later in this analysis, but before we get to that, let’s go deep on why Kyle Hamilton is a very different cat than any player you might have seen before.

(Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

Height: 6’4 1/8″ (99th) Weight: 220 (92nd)
40-Yard Dash: 4.59 seconds (93rd)
10-Yard Split: 1.58 seconds (97th)
Bench Press: N/A
Vertical Jump: 38 inches (81st)
Broad Jump: 131 inches (93nd)
3- Cone Drill: 6.9 seconds (70th)
20-Yard Shuttle: 4.32 seconds (24th)

Wingspan: 79 3/4 inches (94th)
Arm Length: 33inches (90th)
Hand Size: 9 1/8 inches (34th)

Bio: A four-star recruit out of the Marist School in Atlanta, Hamilton was born on the Greek Island of Crete and spent time in Russia when his father played basketball there before moving to Atlanta as a small child. He was a basketball and football player who played quarterback through middle school until an injury had him moving away from the position — and the formation. He was a star at safety and receiver in high school, and chose Notre Dame over just about every major program in the country because of its academics.

A three-year player and two-year starter for the Fighting Irish, Hamilton played all over the place in Notre Dame’s defense, tallying 313 snaps in the box, 437 in the slot, 644 at free safety, 29 at the defensive line, and 15 at cornerback. He made First Team All-American in 2021 (his second straight season doing so) and led the defense in ions with three despite missing the last six games of the season with a knee injury.

Stats to know: Over those three seasons with the Fighting Irish, per Pro Football Focus, Hamilton allowed 39 receptions on 82 targets for 388 yards, 149 yards after the catch, one touchdown, eight interceptions, 14 pass breakups, and an opponent passer rating of 25.9.

(AP Photo/Phil Sears)

The first thing that pops off Hamilton’s tape is unquestionably his insane closing speed. Hamilton can work from one side of the field to the other like a man who’s 3-4 inches shorter, and 10-20 pounds lighter. This allows Hamilton (No. 14) to work the entire field as a match defender, because his transition skills are top-notch when he’s following from the top down. He’ll use his hands to establish the landmark, and run the route right with the receiver — no matter where it goes. This interception against Florida State is a master class.

Here’s his second interception against Florida State, and this is the first example of many where Hamilton’s insane ability to work from one side of the field to the other in a very short times shows up as a major asset. He starts the play on the defensive right seam, and somehow not only gets to the left boundary, but has the wherewithal to make the pick. There are not many safeties in the NFL who can pull this off; Devin McCourty at his best has plays like these — and Devin McCourty is 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. Guys this big and rangy are not supposed to have movement skills like these.

And when Hamilton closes down on a receiver, he arrives with violent intentions. Said receiver had best have his head on a swivel.

You will hear that Hamilton has issues covering in the slot, and in man coverage underneath, but… I dunno, you guys — this rep against Cincinnati looks pretty good to me. When you can have a safety who trails motion and goes to the boundary downfield like this, I think it’s a plus.

(Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports)

NFL teams want range linebackers more than ever, and if you were to isolate Hamilton’s ability to do just this — especially against the run — he’d be worth a second-day pick for that alone. Here’s where the size, speed, and nasty roll into one.

This was a 31-yard run for Purdue’s King Doerue last season, but watch how Hamilton careens over to stop it from becoming a house call by outrunning everybody on the field. All that angle-breaking speed you see in coverage is just as evident when he’s playing the run.

(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Hamilton’s height leads to iffy transition skills at times, and while he can play the deep third as a single defender, it’s not his optimal spot — unless he’s turning and running to react. He’s not the ideal defender against quicker, more angular receivers downfield. On this play against USC, Hamilton’s backpedal out of single-high is decent enough, but he doesn’t transition as quickly as he would if he was coming down to the receiver. Drake London gets a 29-yard catch as a result.

I think that Hamilton can develop into a better deep-third player, and it’s still crazy what he’s able to do back there at his size, but that’s one discussion to be had in front offices, and you can see why some analysts ding him for this. If you want him up high in two-deep looks, which is where the NFL is headed anyway, I think he’ll be just fine. He needs to be more sudden with his transitions, develop better timing to the ball, and trust what he sees in those open-field situations.

(Syndication: Journal-Courier)

There are a lot of questions about Hamilton’s NFL future. I have two.

Is Hamilton the next evolution of the Isaiah Simmons “defensive weapon” template in that deep-half skills and ungodly open-field speed are now built in? What is that worth to a defense?

Why is Hamilton the best player in this draft class? He’s an athlete at one of the NFL’s most important positions. We have simply never seen anybody like him before. That’s why he’s the best player in this draft class to me.

Some teams will not know what to do with him. Some will see him as a big box safety — I’ve seen comparisons to Kam Chancellor, and with all due respect to Kam Chancellor, that erases the crucial range component of Hamilton’s play. Also, some teams simply don’t value the safety position enough to think of him as a top prospect. You can usually tell which teams think of safeties like that in the modern NFL, because their pass defenses stink.

I hope that Hamilton goes to a team with a head coach and a defensive coordinator who don’t try to limit his potential as one primary type of player or another. Kyle Hamilton is the rarest type of player — a jack-of-all-trades who is also a master at just about everything, and the iffy stuff is fixable. You can build an entire defense around a player like this.

(Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports)

It’s interesting that Daniel Jeremiah brought up Derwin James, because that was my closest comparison to Hamilton among current NFL players.

When healthy, James has become one of the NFL’s most versatile and productive safeties, and he does it all over the place. Last season, he played 361 snaps in the box, 224 in the slot, 326 at free safety, nine at cornerback, and 41 along the defensive line. James has had some transitive issues as a pure deep-third safety, but as the Chargers run a ton of two-high under head coach Brandon Staley, that concern is minimized by scheme.

Now, take everything I just said about Derwin James, add three inches to his height, and 5-10 pounds to his weight. Now, you have Kyle Hamilton. Again, we’re talking about an player.

There’s another player who comes to mind, and I do not make this comparison lightly, because had Sean Taylor not been killed when he was just 24 years old, he would have been one of the greatest safeties in pro football history. He was already well on his way, and just as Taylor did things at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds that did not make sense from a physical perspective, Hamilton comes into the NFL as a pure unicorn.

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