The 2022 NFL draft is a month away, and no matter how the lead-up is covered or what new drama breaks, there’s no hiding the truth of the matter: It isn’t a great draft class. We’re pretty sure the first pick will be Michigan edge Aidan Hutchinson, but even then, markets are still shifting. There isn’t a clear top quarterback, top tackle, top pass rusher, or top receiver. Draft guys will bury the lede by calling it a “deep class”—that just means it’s weak up top.
Except for one guy: Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton. While Hamilton isn’t the consensus top player, the 6-foot-4, 220-pound playmaker has earned a ridiculous amount of hype for a safety. The Draft Network has him as the top overall prospect; so does Todd McShay of ESPN. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has him third; so does Danny Kelly here at The Ringer. ESPN’s Mina Kimes said it from the NFL combine in Indianapolis: Kyle Hamilton is the best player, period.
There’s a consensus that Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton is the best safety in the draft. But I also think he’s the best player, period. pic.twitter.com/KbLBRormnf— Mina Kimes (@minakimes) March 6, 2022
But in that clip, Kimes also acknowledged the elephant in the room. “I don’t know how high he’s gonna get drafted. He’s a safety.”
And that seems to be the rub. When experts rank Hamilton, they put him above most of the field; but when they build mock drafts, he slips down the ranks. Kelly has him going eighth to the Falcons; Jeremiah has him going 11th to the Washington Commanders. He’s a top-three player in the class—but, apparently, there’s a chance he’ll be picked outside the top 10.
Slotting Hamilton in the top five in a mock draft is understandably tough to do. Only two safeties have been selected with top-five picks since the turn of the century: Sean Taylor in 2004, and Eric Berry in 2010. Both were the fifth pick; both were immediate impact players when they took the field. The only position (other than special teams) with fewer top-five picks in that time is tight end: Kyle Pitts is the only one. And safeties aren’t just devalued at the tippy top of the draft. When we look outside of the top five, we see the same thing. Just 15 safeties have gone in the top half of the first round since 2000, fewer than all but only interior offensive line (nine) and tight end (seven).
It seems that, no matter how good Hamilton is on the field, he can’t break the perception that safety isn’t a premium position in the NFL. No matter how good he is—no matter whether he’s a sure-fire, can’t-miss prospect with a sky-high ceiling—he can’t add as much to his team as a pass rusher or offensive tackle with star potential can. Those two positions, along with quarterback, are the ones that the league does prioritize with early draft picks. Thirty quarterbacks, 19 edge rushers, and 17 tackles—the three most frequently selected positions—have been drafted with top-five picks since 2000.
But the league’s prevailing wisdom is changing. Slowly, the league is showing us that it values safeties more than it has in recent years, and our understanding of positional value at the top of the draft should change accordingly.
We can see the ballooning value of safeties not in draft capital spent, but in actual capital spent: contract size. Here’s a basic overview of how the league pays different positions, from Jason Fitzgerald of Over the Cap. With quarterback, left tackle, and edge rusher all at the top, and safety, running back, and tight end all at the bottom, this is a good look at the current hierarchy of positional value.
Highest-Paid NFL Positions
While safety seems to be burrowed in the middle of all the non-premium positions, it’s actually just starting to boom—especially at the top. We can see this in another salary cap examination from Over the Cap, this one from Hardik Sanghavi. From 2015 to 2020, the average annual value (AAV) of the five highest-paid players at the most valuable positions predictably rose. As Patrick Mahomes signed his extension, the AAV of the top five highest-paid quarterbacks grew 70 percent. Edge rusher grew 61 percent; offensive lineman, 59 percent. And just below those three positional groups was safety, with a 57 percent jump in the AAV among top contracts. This outpaced the rise in the league’s salary cap of 38 percent.
NFL Positional Salary Growth From 2015-2020
|Position||APY Growth (Top 5)|
|Position||APY Growth (Top 5)|
This jump was created largely by Tyrann Mathieu, who signed the first safety contract worth $12.5 million per year with the Cardinals in 2016; Eric Berry, who inked a $13 million per year deal in 2017; and Landon Collins, Earl Thomas, Eddie Jackson, Budda Baker, and Kevin Byard, who all signed deals averaging over $13.5 million from 2019 and into 2020.
The top of the safety market has been booming at nearly the same rate as the top of the tackle and edge rusher markets—and that was before the 2021 offseason, which was a watershed time for safeties. Three new market-setting deals, all above $15 million per year, were signed last summer: one for Justin Simmons, one for Harrison Smith, and one for Jamal Adams, who smashed the ceiling with a four-year deal paying him $17.5 million a year, over $1.5 million more than the next-closest deal. Once a new ceiling is set, next year’s free agents aim for those landmarks. In the 2022 free agency period, ex-Saints deep safety Marcus Williams signed with the Ravens on a five-year, $70 million deal that included $37 million in guarantees, the second-largest figure for a safety ever.
Now that safeties are starting to get paid, drafting a safety early suddenly doesn’t look so intimidating. If Hamilton were selected with the first pick, he’d be handed a contract worth $10.4 million per year, which would make him just the 13th-highest-paid safety in the league. There are some good players in that neighborhood—John Johnson III, Justin Reid, and Jordan Poyer—and the pressure would be on to perform, as it is for any first overall pick. But the contract wouldn’t be egregious. The cost would be appropriate for the expectation.
Playing up to the value of a top contract is one thing —being worth the pick is actually another. Fortunately, Hamilton is—at least, all of the draft experts seem to think so. Not only is he a free-ranging pterodactyl with ball skills, but he also has experience, production, high-end athletic traits, and quality intangibles. He’s drawn comparisons to Kam Chancellor and Derwin James. There is no role on the field that he cannot fill.
And that’s the final piece of this puzzle: The way Hamilton plays safety fits the demands of how it must be played in the modern NFL. When the Legion of Boom emerged in the mid-2010s, many teams modeled their coverage shells after those played in Seattle. They put one safety deep and one safety in the box, each with specific roles tailored to their skill sets. The deep safety was a rangy center fielder with instincts and ball skills in zone; the box safety was a big body, a tough tackler, and would stick in man coverage.
But the league has moved away from those one-high coverages and now favors two-high coverages—which place the safeties on equal footing and demands that the two become interchangeable. Both safeties must be able to fill every possible role: fitting the run in the box, playing center field, guarding a slot receiver in man coverage, spying the quarterback, and sneaking into underneath zones.
Look back now at those three players who reset the market in 2020. Jamal Adams is such a versatile athlete that he basically plays edge rusher on third down for Seattle. Simmons has been the star safety of the league’s two-high defense du jour, run by Vic Fangio in Denver, over the past few seasons; Smith was the lynchpin of another two-high structure run by Mike Zimmer in Minnesota for even longer.
This new requirement on safeties is greater. Teams can’t just find a late-round track star and stick him in center field, or grab a quasi-linebacker and huck him into the box. Instead, teams need players with versatility, both in body (size, speed, quickness) and in mind (play recognition, audibles, and checks). Safeties have become so integral to the defensive structure that teams are increasingly giving safeties the defensive headset with which to relay the play call in the huddle. They are the new cornerstone of the defensive backfield.
But the market didn’t just boom because safeties were given new jobs in new defenses—those players got paid because they shined in those new jobs. As measured by PFF’s wins above replacement in 2019, the top 10 safeties were more valuable to their teams than any other position save for quarterback (duh) and wide receiver, by a slim margin. In plain English: Having a top-10 player at safety matters more than having a top-10 player at almost any other position.
Average WAR of Top-10 Players by Position
|Position||Top-10 WAR Average|
|Position||Top-10 WAR Average|
As Arjun Menon wrote for PFF, much of the value created by quality safeties comes from the versatility they provide to the defense. Teams with top-10 safeties call a greater variety of coverages than teams with top-10 cornerbacks or linemen. Defenses become more fluid and less predictable.
It isn’t just that the safeties are good players. It’s that they are force multipliers. A top safety can make an entire defense better. Is this not the same argument used to justify massive contracts for star pass rushers, who can regularly pressure the quarterback and make life easier on the cornerbacks behind them? Or star pass protectors, who can withstand those star pass rushers and generate time for their quarterback to read the defense and for receivers to get open?
We don’t know for sure that Hamilton will be a great player. But we do know that hitting on a top player matters more at safety than it does at other positions. And we also know that Hamilton is accustomed to wearing every hat a defense can offer him. He made plays as a deep safety in both true zone and pattern-matching responsibilities, showing route recognition, explosiveness, and range.
He made plays in underneath zones and against the quick game, where his length allowed him to attack throwing windows or make tough tackles on the run.
And he made plays in run defense or as a blitzer, using the same traits that made him an impact player behind the line of scrimmage.
Look at the variety of alignments and the variety of asks. There is nothing Notre Dame didn’t ask of Hamilton during his three years with the team, and there is nothing that he couldn’t do. If you want to live in a two-high world defensively, you simply must prioritize this position, and in doing so, prioritize this player.
Maybe the league will fall into its old ways, shying from Hamilton in the top five because he’s a safety. Change is hard, and no team wants to be the one that goes out on a limb and falls. But for as odd as the idea of a safety drafted in the top five may seem, the league is heading that direction, and will end up there eventually. Whether you’re looking at Xs and Os, analytics, or contract bookkeeping, safety is a valuable position, and is becoming even more valuable every year. Star safeties are precious commodities, and one of the best safety prospects imaginable is sitting on the NFL’s doorstep, surrounded by one of weakest draft classes in recent memory. Hamilton deserves that top-five pick, and the team that goes out on that limb will be happy it did.