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Notre Dame Safety Kyle Hamilton is Unicorn of 2022 NFL Draft Class

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 27, 2022

Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton (14) during an NCAA football game against Florida State on Sunday, Sept. 5, 2021 in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Gary McCullough)
Gary McCullough/Associated Press

Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton is unlike any other prospect in this year's NFL draft class.

Eric Berry is the last safety prospect to hear his name called among the first five draft selections. Eric Turner is the only safety to be selected in the top three since 1990. The position isn't usually held in such high regard. A special talent is necessary to enter such lofty territory. 

Hamilton has an excellent chance to reset both of those counters despite his positional value. In that regard, he'll join names like Quenton Nelson and Kyle Pitts, whose value as prospects superseded traditional norms. These talents are unicorns. They're so gifted and unique relative to their position that their abilities can't be overlooked when teams consider other top prospects at premium positions. 

Nelson, who dominates at left guard, has been named to the first- or second-team All-Pro squad in each of his four seasons. Kyle Pitts fell just short of the rookie record for receiving yardage by a tight end with 1,026 yards.

Some talent is simply too good to pass up, even when others make more sense from a conventional standpoint. 

Everything starts with the defensive back's imposing frame. At 6'4" and 220 pounds, very few safeties look like Hamilton. For comparison, Kam Chancellor, who served as the game's premier strong safety for years during the Seattle Seahawks' heyday, came into the league at 6'3" and 231 pounds. 

Darryl Webb/Associated Press

The 6'4", 238-pound Isaiah Simmons converted to linebacker after becoming the No. 8 pick in the 2019 draft class. The Carolina Panthers also had Jeremy Chinn (6'3", 220 pounds) start his professional career at linebacker before bumping him back to safety. The Los Angeles Chargers' Derwin James is a do-it-all defender at 6'2" and 215 pounds. The Minnesota Vikings' Harrison Smith has a similar build. These examples should be considered outliers as the upper percentile in size for the position. 

What separates those mentioned from other big safeties who are basically old-school, in-the-box types is their athleticism and versatility to be used as a defensive chess piece instead of being boxed into one specific position. 

In Hamilton's case, his range is absurd for a player his size thanks to impressive closing speed and lower-body explosivity.  

"His top-end GPS speed has improved from last year to 21 miles per hour," The Athletic's Bruce Feldman noted when ranking last year's top collegiate athletes for the 2021 season, where Hamilton came in third overall. "His vertical is 41-7 and his broad jump is 10-8." 

Like other big defensive backs, the consensus All-American can struggle slightly when covering smaller, quicker receivers out of their breaks. However, his current skill set translates well to the next level, as Bleacher Report scout Cory Giddings detailed

"[Hamilton] has the man-coverage ability to defend all types of threats—from the bigger tight ends, to the shorter traditional slot receivers. Although he can play in all schemes and coverages, he does some of his best work when he drops in underneath coverage. There, he does a great job of reacting to what he sees. He anticipates routes and uses his length and short-area quickness to get his hands on passes.

"Hamilton is a great blitzer who uses his hands well to take on and control blockers. On top of his physical stature, he is a hard-nosed tackler who throws his body around, delivering massive blows to ball-carriers all over the field.

"He will continue to fill out his frame, which might eventually look even more like a linebacker than a defensive back. Notre Dame employed him very similarly to how Clemson used Isaiah Simmons. It's logical that's how he will be used as a pro."

Hamilton is the complete package as a hybrid defender capable of playing in the box, blitzing quarterbacks, covering the slot and switching between both safety spots. Prior to a knee injury Hamilton suffered on Oct. 23, he allowed the lowest passer rating in coverage of any safety since the start of the 2019 campaign, per Pro Football Focus. His value based on a multifaceted skill set should allow him to skyrocket up draft boards and into the top-three conversation, particularly in this class. 

The 2022 draft will be defined primarily by the defensive talent found near the top because of a weak incoming quarterback crop. Yes, the Jacksonville Jaguars are likely to select an offensive tackle with the No. 1 selection as a premium bodyguard to protect last year's top pick, quarterback Trevor Lawrence. From there, Hamilton will be in play. 

The Detroit Lions may lean toward a defensive lineman such as Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson—a home-state product—Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux or Purdue's Georgia Karlaftis. However, the edge class is counted among the draft's deepest and the team already features the Okwara brothers as a pass-rushing tandem. Besides, one of the team's starting safeties, Tracy Walker III, is a pending free agent. Hamilton can immediately become a defensive centerpiece capable of contributing at all three levels. 

If the Lions pass, the Houston Texans could be waiting. General manager Nick Caserio basically stripped his roster down to the studs this past season. Safety Justin Reid is set to enter free agency, while the team can release Eric Murray this offseason and save $5.2 million. 

The New England Patriots and those who have spun out of that organization—like Caserio—have routinely placed a heavy emphasis on the safety position in the modern game, because a multifaceted defensive back allows coordinators to match up with offenses better without substitutions. Hamilton can immediately step in as an instant impact defender and leader on that side of the ball. 

At No. 4, the New York Jets' secondary still isn't right since the organization traded away Jamal Adams. Marcus Maye is set to leave now, as well. The idea of trading away a high-end safety prospect just to draft another may seem counterintuitive, but the Jets own the league's 30th-ranked pass defense and severely lack talent on their back end. 

Maybe the New York Giants get lucky and Hamilton tumbles all the way to the fifth spot. New general manager Joe Schoen has the luxury of having a pair of top-10 picks at his disposal. He could easily select a high-end defender like Hamilton, which would allow him to replace Jabrill Peppers, who is a pending free agent. Schoen could then use the 20-year old in a rotation with Xavier McKinney and Logan Ryan until the latter's contract ends after the 2023 campaign. 

Barry Reeger/Associated Press

In Hamilton's case, his standing is further buoyed by the fact that the rest of the safety class lacks quality depth. Aside from Penn State's Jaquan Brisker, who B/R has ranked as a fringe first-round prospect, the position group doesn't feature many quality prospects—only eight counted among the site's end-of-season Top 150. 

Financially, such a move makes sense for all of these teams. 

Last year's contracts between the second and fifth overall selection ranged from $30.8-35.2 million (fully guaranteed) in total value. Before any moves are made this offseason, Hamilton would barely crack the top-10 highest-paid safeties even if he went No. 2, though a full guarantee would place him among the top three. Expectations are for him to become one of the NFL's best safeties in short order. Those amounts aren't too much to pay.

As for the previously mentioned injury, it shouldn't be considered a long-term issue when weighing such an investment. 

"The injury itself is generally a six-week injury, so there was some meniscus involvement, but that is no longer an issue," previous Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly told reporters in November. " ... This is much more about the healing around the knee itself, and there’s no structural damage at all."

According to Kelly's timeline, Hamilton should already be fully recovered and ready for the predraft process, which should include workouts at the NFL combine and Notre Dame's pro day. 

Considering Hamilton will be only 21 years old throughout his entire rookie season, his growth potential—both physically and mentally—is immense. 

Positional value is important when all things are considered equal. That said, Hamilton has no equal in this class, at least among his position. His traits are certainly rare and well worth a significant investment near the very top of the 2022 NFL draft. 

                  

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.

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