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Ed Reed. Troy Polumalu. Ronnie Lott. Ken Houston. Paul Krause. In some order, those are arguably the five greatest safeties in NFL history. Maybe throw Steve Atwater in there, too. All of them are Hall of Famers. Sean Taylor probably would have gotten there if he had not been tragically killed only four years into his career. They were incredible, game-changing players in the league.
Why am I bringing up these legendary safeties? That’s because Kyle Hamilton is one of the top draft prospects in 2022, and based on the hype, it seems like he could be the next Hall of Fame-caliber safety in the NFL. At least, that is what I would expect for a player many are saying should be drafted as early as No. 2 overall by the Lions. This isn’t some random draft analyst either. Mel Kiper Jr. had him at No. 2 in his latest mock draft. The question is: is a safety worthy of such an early selection in the NFL draft?
The last time we had a safety drafted in the top five, it was Eric Berry back in 2010. Berry was a good player for a long time, but is debatable whether he was worth a top-five selection. That level of scrutiny is a very high bar to clear and puts a ton of expectation to put on Hamilton the moment he steps into the league.
There are certainly cautionary tales out there for not drafting a safety in the top 10. Jamal Adams went sixth overall in 2017. It wasn’t necessarily a bad pick, especially when you consider that the Jets netted two first-round picks and Bradley McDougald when they traded him to the Seahawks in 2020. That being said, I chalk that up to bad process on the side of Seattle, who mortgaged its future to acquire a player that was a total liability in pass coverage. Essentially, the Seahawks bailed the Jets out. I definitely believe that trade is a big part of the reason Russell Wilson is no longer with the team.
The difference with Hamilton is that he can cover. He plays fast, has good ball skills and a solid understanding over coverage responsibilities. Actually, just watch the play below to see what I’m talking about:
Hamilton is the complete package. At 6’4″, 220 pounds, he is built like a modern day linebacker, but he has better coverage skills than just about any linebacker in the game. There are some small concerns about his health after he missed a good chunk of his final season due to a knee injury. He also posted a less than stellar 4.59 40-yard dash time at the combine, which is below average for safeties.
There is no question Hamilton is a really good prospect. He is one of the best in this class and one of the best safety prospects ever. However, the positional value for a safety in the NFL right now simply is not high enough for me to feel comfortable taking him in the top five. I had the Jets selected him with the 10th in my most recent mock draft. I’m not the only one struggling with this. Daniel Jeremiah projected Hamilton to slide to 11th, landing with the Commanders, in his latest mock draft. While comparing Hamilton to other top safety prospects is a bit tricky given how different he is from Adams and how much the game has changed since Taylor played, let’s take a different approach.
Over the past few drafts, there have been a couple different highly-rated prospects at positions that the league does not value as highly (think running backs, interior offensive linemen). It’s a bit too early if Kyle Pitts was worth the fourth overall pick in 2021. He became the highest drafted tight end ever and the first to go in the top six picks since Vernon Davis in 2006. We will have to revisit that one in a few years.
Before that, we can go back to 2018. Saquon Barkley went second overall and without question that was a terrible pick. Even with how talented and game-changing he can be when healthy, there is simply not enough value in drafting a running back that early in the draft. New York passed on a number of quarterbacks, including Josh Allen, and a very talented edge rusher in Bradley Chubb. Needless to say, New York would have been much better off heading in a different direction and opting for a player that played at a more valuable position. Finding starting running backs rarely requires teams to spend a first round pick these days. Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Nick Chubb, Joe Mixon and Jonathan Taylor all went in the second round or later.
The 2018 draft provides us another interesting comparison point for Hamilton. That draft also produced Quenton Nelson, one of the best interior linemen prospects ever who faced many of the same questions Hamilton is facing now. He went sixth overall to the Colts and he has not disappointed. He has missed just three games across four seasons en route to four Pro Bowl selections and three first-team All-Pro honors. He is in line to become the highest paid interior lineman in NFL history whenever he signs his next contract. Without question, Indianapolis got more than enough value from drafting Nelson in that slot.
Once again though, that is an incredibly high bar to reach. Nelson essentially stepped into the NFL and was instantly one of the best guards in the league, if not the best. I don’t know if we will be able to say the same thing about Hamilton. He might get there in a few years. I also personally value interior offensive linemen over safeties, but the gap between them is not overly significant.
Bottom line, I think I would feel comfortable drafting Hamilton around sixth overall or later, but I can also understand if he does not come off the board until somewhere in the 10-to-12 range. I know my assessment does not really mean much, but I do think this will be a really interesting case study for future drafts. If Hamilton is not one of the best players at the position within his first three seasons, there will be a narrative about how you cannot draft safeties that early. Fair or not, that is the pressure and paradox facing teams right now when evaluating Hamilton in this draft class.
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