For several months now—and for a large part of the 2021 college football season—Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton has been the number one overall prospect on The Draft Network’s prospect rankings. Regardless of positional value as a safety, he deserves to be a top five pick in this year’s draft.
To say that Hamilton is a special prospect isn’t just a take we have internally here at TDN. ESPN has Hamilton ranked #2, as does PFF. However, as highly touted a prospect as Hamilton is, you’d be incredibly hard-pressed to find a single mock draft that has the Notre Dame product going first overall. Shoot, he didn’t even crack the top 10 in the last three mock drafts our scouting team members have put out.
That all comes down to the perceived positional value of safeties in the NFL. Where a quarterback could completely change the direction of a franchise, an offensive tackle could help improve the offense overall or an edge rusher could provide a major lift to an NFL defense, most teams don’t see a safety having that same impact.
You don’t have to look further than the drafts over the last 10 years to see that teams don’t value safeties as highly as those other positions.
In the last decade of NFL Drafts, only two safeties—Mark Barron and Jamal Adams—have cracked the top 10, and neither of them were drafted in the top five. Only three safeties have ever been taken that high in the draft: Eric Turner (second overall) in 1991, Sean Taylor (fifth) in 2004 and Eric Berry (fifth) in 2010.
As the game of football evolves though, we’re already starting to see how positional values evolve with it. The NFL has become more of a passing league in recent years, and quarterbacks have never been valued higher. The guys at the top of the pack are generally the ones who can do the most with their arms but that position has evolved as well. Quarterbacks who are double threats and can create with their legs as well as their arms are valued even higher.
In response, that change to high-volume passing offenses led to correlating changes on the defensive side of the ball. That change is particularly noticeable in the way safeties are expected to play.
With so much passing going on, most teams are starting to favor two-high safety looks in their defensive secondary, and the more versatile the safeties, the better. The extra expectation for the position means each safety should be able to play over the middle like in one-high looks, drop down and defend slot receivers, play the run as an extra defender in the box, play as a quarterback spy and even, in cases like Jamal Adams, rush the passer.
As expectations for safeties grow, we’ve already seen how teams are beginning to pay up for that extra value. Adams signed a pricey contract extension last offseason, as did the Vikings’ Harrison Smith. We’ve also already seen a big payday during this offseason, as Marcus Williams cashed in on his stellar play to begin his time with the Ravens.
So teams are expecting safeties to do more at their position and they’re starting to pay up for those who can. That brings me all the way back to Kyle Hamilton.
Hamilton is the top prospect on our scouting team’s big board because he can quite literally do it all. He can fly across the field to make a diving interception, thanks to his incredible instincts and explosiveness. He can both cover the deep pass and excel in the nickel against both blockers and pass-catchers. He can defend the run with his good angles, great ability to shed blocks and superb tackling. He can even line up on the line of scrimmage to add more pressure and cover punts on fourth down.
There is nothing that an NFL team could possibly ask of Hamilton that he couldn’t do. So why, then, is he not a lock for being a top five selection in this draft? There isn’t a team out there who wouldn’t want a do-it-all defender like Hamilton, in theory.
It all goes back to that perceived positional value. A safety hasn’t been taken in the top five in 12 years, so why be the team to take that risk? As great as Hamilton is, many teams might perceive a top offensive tackle or an edge rusher as more valuable impact additions because of the positions they play. But not every safety is Hamilton.
The Notre Dame product is truly a game-changing talent. His versatility, instincts and athleticism will make him a successful defender at the pro level. The versatility especially is important in a league in which teams are getting hungrier for do-it-all players at the position.
Being the fantastic athlete he is, Hamilton is worth a top five pick in this year’s draft. Sean Taylor was worth it. So was Eric Berry. Teams picking at the top of the draft order shouldn’t be paralyzed by any perceived positional value for a player this talented, especially as the safety position is steadily growing in value. Whatever team drafts him, even if he falls out of the top five (or the top 10!) will not regret it.
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