Kyle Hamilton had to adapt to an unexpected role to get the most out of his rookie season with the Ravens. He learned enough from the experience that he’s not going to pin himself down, not on June 6, anyway.
The 2022 first-round draft pick knows fans are eager to hear where he will play in his second NFL campaign: At safety, where he was rated the runaway top prospect in his class? Or at nickel back, where he became one of the team’s most important defenders down the stretch of last season?
“I don’t know,” he said Tuesday when asked if this is the year he becomes a full-time starting safety. “I think as of right now, I feel like I can do a multitude of things, and I feel like no one’s really trying to pin me at one place at this point.”
But does he feel more at ease in one spot over the other?
“I wouldn’t say there’s one where I’m specifically most comfortable,” he said. “It’s different. At nickel, you’re closer to the action. You can’t see as much behind you. That’s the safety’s job. You have to communicate a lot more at safety.”
Given the breadth of his talents and the uncertainty around where he’ll put them to use, Hamilton will be one the most interesting players on the team in 2023, just as he was in 2022.
He will not have to compete for snaps with Chuck Clark, who was traded to the New York Jets in March after four seasons as a starter in Baltimore, but that does not mean he’ll play like a traditional safety.
“He’s not going to be the nickel,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “He’s going to be a safety. A traditional safety role? Probably not in our defense, because we move our guys around. Our safeties are rushing the passer. They’re playing linebacker. We do a lot with those guys. The fact that he’s able to do all that really helps us be who we want to be on defense.”
Regardless of where he lines up, Hamilton hopes to be more consistent than he was in his debut season. “I know what’s expected now, on a day-to-day basis,” he said. “There’s less room for excuses.”
After his mental mistakes contributed to the Ravens blowing a 21-point lead against the Miami Dolphins in their home opener last year, he averaged just 19 defensive snaps over the next five weeks. Fans and analysts wondered if the Ravens had used a first-round pick on a safety who could not keep pass catchers in front of him. When starter Marcus Williams dislocated his wrist, it was Geno Stone, not Hamilton, who stepped in.
The rookie did not truly find his place until the second half of the season when he filled the team’s void at nickel back. New middle linebacker Roquan Smith received much of the credit for the Ravens’ defensive turnaround, but Hamilton’s versatile playmaking was also essential. He might chase down a running back on one play, cover a tight end on the next and rush off the edge on the one after that.
Hamilton, 22, played at least 70% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps in four of the last five regular-season games and 92% in their playoff loss to the Cincinnati Bengals, in which he made nine tackles, forced a fumble and was one of the best players on the field.
His versatility made him a favorite of the analysts at Pro Football Focus, who graded him the top safety in the league, albeit in fewer snaps than the players just below him.
“It just felt like that was the right decision, and it worked out for us, and to his credit, he kind of fit in seamlessly,” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “So, moving forward, that’s what this process is all about — figuring out who has earned a job and who earns the right to be out there and play for us. How many safeties we have out there, that’ll depend on the situation. Could we do three safeties again? Absolutely.”
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Hamilton had covered the slot at Notre Dame, so it was not as if he was asked to step radically outside his comfort zone.
“Really, it’s just the guys you’re going against,” he said when asked to explain the transition from college star to NFL novice. “There’s guys in college that we played that are good, but you’re not going against [Cleveland Browns wide receiver] Amari Cooper in the slot in college. There’s guys every single week that are really good. … You run enough plays, you’ll get the scheme down, but you’re not going to replicate the talent out here.”
Ultimately, he had to “let loose” and operate on instinct, an approach that fit the rapid-fire demands of playing closer to the line of scrimmage.
He spent his offseason back at Notre Dame, taking classes, rehabilitating from wrist surgery, working to add muscle.
“I don’t know if you guys can tell,” he joked, flexing a frame that was already huge for his position.
His period of adjustment will likely continue this season if he plays more snaps in Clark’s former role.
“As of right now, I’m getting a lot of reps at safety,” Hamilton said Tuesday. “I didn’t get a ton of reps at safety last year, just in terms of the room that we had. … So yeah, there’s still a lot to learn for me back there at that position, at this level.”