When TDN’s scouting department dropped the first edition of the TDN100 in August, it served as the culmination of several months' worth of legwork to prepare for kickoff and the start of another college football season and another NFL Draft cycle. But that foundational work still needed to be organized—players sorted out in their respective tiers. And while everyone on staff agreed that Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton was an exceptional player and a top-tier prospect for the 2021 NFL Draft, our group did not necessarily have a unanimous decision on where he sorted himself out amid the elite prospects in the class.
Our group had a spirited debate around three prospects at the top of the charts: Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., and Hamilton.
Hamilton eventually won out in the debate for the top spot. And, as he showed in a brilliant debut against Florida State on Sunday night, he’s got the skills to change the game in just about every capacity.
Hamilton logged two interceptions against the Seminoles, one coming at the catch point with Hamilton undercutting a receiver and the other coming in a spectacular showcase of range and instincts as he dropped off of the field hash and rotated into a middle of the field assignment in zone before scrambling all the way to the boundary sideline to complete the interception some 20-plus yards downfield.
But with Hamilton’s terrific debut comes more spotlight and, eventually, more big-picture questions. Like how high can you realistically rank a safety relative to two of the other more traditional “premier” positions of the game in defensive end and cornerback? Is Hamilton just the latest in supersized athletes with positional flexibility? Will teams over-complicate his projection by asking him to be something he’s not (Namely a linebacker, as we’ve seen in recent years with Isaiah Simmons and Jeremy Chinn)? Or is Hamilton the exception to the rules of positional value?
You know where TDN stands on the matter. But how did we get here?
The conversation surrounding Hamilton was rooted largely in the trends of the game. Pace and space are more prevalent now in the NFL than ever before—and that shift in style of play has afforded the opportunity to devastating athletes at the tight end position; they’re serving as the new catalyst to offenses around the league with their ability to line up in traditional alignments or even flex out into the slot or perimeter as a true receiver. This is how Kyle Pitts gets drafted at No. 4 overall. This is how guys like George Kittle, Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, and Jonnu Smith have all been able to cash in on contracts in value exceeding $50M. The first three have exceeded $14M in annual average salary. If you don’t have dynamic tight ends, you’re missing out on the highest level of conflict that you can place on opposing teams.
Traditionally, 12-personnel from an opposing offense is a surefire prompt to play in base personnel on defense and tout four defensive backs on the field. But what happens if those tight ends are Kyle Pitts and Hayden Hurst or Zach Ertz and Dallas Goedert or Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry or Austin Hooper and David Njoku or any other number of dynamic pairings and a 3x1 alignment ensues with no attached tight end to the blocking surface? Now you’ve got a safety covering one of these tight ends and most likely a linebacker covering the other.
What does all of this have to do with Hamilton?
Hamilton can play linebacker in subpackage sets. He can play down in the slot. He can play high safety in the post. And that’s what makes Hamilton the prospect more valuable to the NFL now than he’d ever have been in the past because he’s the football equivalent of the Reverse Uno card.
You want to run 12-personnel with a seven-man blocking surface? Great. Hamilton can play a high safety role or float down into the box. His run fits from 10-plus yards of pre-snap alignment are insane, so you can play two-high safety looks and not feel as though you’re compromising your fit in the run game because he can cover so much ground so quickly, too.
Playing 12-personnel and spreading the field? Perfect. Hamilton can maintain that high-post role or alternatively roll down into the slot to take man coverage assignments.
Hamilton provides an answer for the conflicts and further complicates the quarterback’s pre-snap indicators because there’s little to no reason for him to leave the field. And there’s little tell to his defensive personnel groupings because of all of the different places Hamilton can line up and impact the play.
But we’ve seen high-level athletes like Simmons and Chinn and Kyle Dugger come through the NFL draft process in recent years and only Simmons was coveted in even the same stratosphere as where Hamilton is being discussed. What gives?
It’s the football instincts.
Hamilton is a plus tackler in space. He understands how to fit the run from both high alignments and in the nickel position. And, as he showed against Florida State, the floor in coverage is quite high—not as high as the ceiling, but quite high nonetheless.
In today’s game, Hamilton alleviates one of the biggest worries of defensive coordinators and provides solutions that other teams would need two or three players to fulfill. And that’s why he’s the exception to the rule of positional value and safety and, for my money, this year’s top prospect at this point in the process.