It might seem like I am just piggybacking onto a trend by writing this. In a recent episode of the PFF Tailgate podcast (Ep. 279), the hosts briefly discuss this idea. On January 21st, Erik Schlitt released an article on Pride of Detroit discussing his views on this topic (though from a different angle than the one I’ll be coming from below). But to me, Kyle Hamilton is the best pick the Lions could make in the 2022 NFL Draft, and this is something I have thought about for a while now. This will likely be unpopular, as many Lions fans have already pencilled in one of the top edge rushers with our pick; be it the hometown hero Aiden Hutchinson, or Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux. To be clear, I want to preface this by saying that if the Lions do draft either one of the top edge rushers instead of Hamilton, I will be happy as we have needed an alpha edge since the peak of Ziggy Ansah’s career. However, to me, Hamilton would have the biggest impact for the Lions in Year One, and over the course of his rookie deal and beyond. We saw the part that Jessie Bates played in the Bengals knocking off the number one seed Titans in the Divisional Round and the Chiefs in the AFC Conference Championship what a great safety can do for a defence. We also saw in the Bills win over the Patriots in the Wildcard what a great safety duo can do for a team, and in my eyes, Walker and Hamilton could be that.
Therefore, I have chosen to write this to explain my thoughts. As a person who has a Master of Arts (in Classics, for the few of you who care), I find it easiest to express my thoughts in long-form, where I can reference things to back myself up. This applies equally to discussing the political structure of Athens in the fifth century BC, the reception of Greek myth in Young Adult fiction, or my thoughts on who the team I support from across a big blue ocean should draft. In this article, I will solely be focussing on safety and edge as it is highly unlikely that we go in any other direction with our first pick barring a major trade-down/injury. So get comfortable, get a nice hot drink and maybe some biscuits (cookies for any American readers who might chance upon this), and let me take you on a trip through my thought process. I hope you won’t hate me by the end.
In most schemes, if not all, the defensive line is rotated where possible. Looking at the defensive snap counts for our top three edge rushers in the games they were active and didn’t leave with an injury (to my recollection), this appears to be something that also happens in Aaron Glenn’s scheme here in Detroit:
Romeo Okwara (3 games): 97.8% of snaps
Trey Flowers (6): 70%
Charles Harris (17): 76.4%
In comparison, here are the defensive snap counts for some of the league’s best edge rushers:
TJ Watt (11): 84.4%
Rashan Gary (I know what you’re thinking but Gary was 2nd in the league in pressures , 4th in PFF grade [89.3], and 1st in pressure rate for pure edge rushers [17.5%] [Micah Parsons led the league overall with 21.8%]) (16): 67.4%
Nick Bosa (17): 77.5%
Myles Garrett (17): 77.2%
Firstly, Romeo played an absurdly high number of snaps due to the perceived lack of depth at that point. Even TJ Watt, who plays on a team where he is easily the best edge rusher and the rest of the team’s pressures mostly come from the IDL (e.g. Cam Heyward), only played 85% of snaps. You have to remember that at the start of the season, we did not know what monster we had on our hands in Charles Harris. Some of us even thought his one-year contract was a waste of money and a roster spot. Secondly, I have discounted Julian Okwara, Austin Bryant, Jesse Lemonier, and Rashod Berry as, even when they were on the field due to the IR’ing of Romeo and Flowers, their snap counts were so low it would skew the numbers. For context, Julian played 39.1% of snaps in the 13 games I counted. The other listed players play 70-80% of snaps. Therefore, given the above numbers, a drafted edge would only play roughly 75% snaps at most, an estimate which obviously could be brought lower if Flowers is not cut/traded and Charles Harris is resigned in free agency. Is a player who will enter the season at EDGE3, and therefore not be getting the snaps of a starter, worth the second overall pick?
In comparison, the defensive snap counts for our top three safeties, and some of the league’s top safeties, in similar circumstances are as follows:
Tracy Walker (15): 88.7%
Dean Marlowe (16): 64.3%
Will Harris (17): 88.7%
Derwin James (15): 91.3%
Jamal Adams (11): 99.6%
Micah Hyde (17): 94.8%
Kevin Byard (17): 96.4%
Jessie Bates (14): 97.3%
As you can see, safeties are on the field for more of the game than edges. They aren’t rotated as much across the league, but even in Glenn’s scheme where rotation seems more prominent, even Will Harris took a higher percentage of defensive snaps than Charles Harris. Across the league, the best safeties are for the most part on the field for near 100% of defensive snaps, as they are able to perform a number of roles. This is unlike edge players, who are rotated because they have specific skill sets and therefore need to be used in certain situations. For example, Flowers is a good run defender and so is better used on running downs, and then needs to be taken off the field for someone who is a better pocket pusher like Julian Okwara on obvious passing downs. Therefore, one can assume that in a scheme like ours, where we ran the fourth most 2-man looks in the league (behind the Saints, Broncos, and Chargers), a player with a wide skill set such as Kyle Hamilton will be on the field for most of the defensive snaps and thus will have a greater impact for us both in Year 1 and overall, and will offer us better flexibility in free agency.
Spotrac says our cap space is $29.3 million currently [at the time of writing, it's now $23.9m as a result of futures deals, most of which will not progress into full contracts]. As of this moment, our Lions have four edge rushers under contract. These are Romeo and Julian Okwara, Trey Flowers, and Austin Bryant. Charles Harris is a UFA, and crowd favourites Jesse Lemonier and Rashod Berry are both ERFAs. One can assume that Harris is a priority for the front office to pay given how well he played for us and given his interviews near the end of the season, the interest in returning is mutual. We can also guess that one or both of Lemonier and Berry will be back to fight for roster spots in camp. That leaves us with seven bodies in the edge room, six if we can find a trade partner for Flowers and his highlight reel. One can presume Romeo and Harris are the starters, with Julian and Bryant as backups, along with any draftees and signings sliding in in front of Bryant.
The safety room looks a lot more worrying. We have three safeties signed currently; Will Harris, Brady Breeze, and newly signed former Ram JuJu Hughes. While these players obviously do have talent as they are in the NFL while I’m typing away on a laptop far away, this group does not inspire confidence as starters next year. Walker and Marlowe are both UFAs, special team ace CJ Moore is an RFA, and Jalen Elliot is an ERFA. It could be safe to assume that at least one of these will be back, given the special teams value that both Moore and Elliot offer. However, it is highly likely that one, or both, of Walker and Marlowe will be back due to their veteran presence and familiarity with the scheme. One would hope that Walker is a starter, but at the current state of the roster, Will Harris will once again be starting beside him, which we have had enough experience of to know that this is not conducive to the progression we want to achieve next season.
Spotrac also calculates Charles Harris’ market value at 4 years, $34.7 million, with an average salary of $8.7 million. Likewise, they estimate that trading Flowers with a pre-June 1st designation saves us $12 million against the cap while we incur $11.2 million in dead cap this year. However, if we trade him with a post-June 1st designation, this saves us $17.6 million and incurs $5.6 million in dead cap this year and next. While Spotrac currently does not have an estimation for Walker’s value, I assume he will ask for a similar contract to the one that Adrian Amos received from the Packers in 2019 (4 years, $36 million, $9 million AAV). Below, I have created a table to show how each scenario involving the re-signings of Walker and Harris, and trading Flowers, could play out based on the projected AAV of Walker and Harris' contracts;
No Flowers Trade
Pre-June 1st Cut
Post-June 1st Cut
As you can see, if we don’t trade Flowers and also resign Charles Harris and Tracy Walker, this would leave us with less than $12 million to add further talent to the roster like a WR, LB, and an S to challenge Will Harris for the starting spot alongside Walker. Is using our first pick to add another edge player the best use of resources when we need bodies in other areas of the roster? Or is adding a blue-chip safety to help lock up the secondary for years to come, and give Glenn and Pleasant more options with what they can do, a better choice? I think the latter, especially with how the spread of talent in the draft seems to be at this moment.
Kyle Hamilton, Aiden Hutchinson, and Kayvon Thibodeaux are three of the top talents in this year’s draft. The way different people and websites rank them depends on their preferences in terms of the weight of talent and positional value, and on whether they like the upside of Thibodeaux or the proven production of Hutchinson. According to the Consensus Big Board on NFL Mock Draft Database, Thibodeaux is currently rated as the best prospect in the draft, Hutchinson the second-best, with Hamilton in fifth due to the “lower value” of the position he plays. I personally would have Hamilton top of the board if it was rated according to talent regardless of position, followed by Hutchinson and then Thibodeaux.
The aforementioned Erik Schlitt recently tweeted a clip of a play Hamilton made during his first game of the past college season; an overtime win by Notre Dame over my FSU Noles. The play in question is an interception he made on a deep pass from my beloved Jordan Travis. In this play, Hamilton is covering the far side of the field (from the perspective of the camera). The ball is snapped and the coverage on the near side of the field is busted as the RB Jashaun Corbin comes on a wheel route. Hamilton diagnoses this as the deep pass is unleashed and moves across the field to intercept the pass just before it reaches Corbin. This is the kind of individual playmaking that we have lacked from our secondary this season. Over his three years at Notre Dame, Hamilton has totalled 138 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, 8 interceptions, 16 PBUs and a defensive touchdown.
“What about Amani’s interceptions?” I hear you ask. Yes, he had six interceptions this season, but most of these came off deflections from other players that bounced his way, just like Minkah Fitzpatrick’s five interceptions after he was traded to the Steelers in 2019. Amani’s six interceptions tripled his career total as he had three in his previous two seasons combined. Furthermore, our other five interceptions were spread between five players (Walker, Anzalone, AJ Parker, Julian Okwara, and CJ Moore). Our eleven interceptions this season ranked tied-22nd in the league, but only seven teams had less than our number; the Seahawks, Football Team, and Chargers also had eleven. The defence was also tied-21st in the league with the Vikings for pass defences with 68 PDs, and the percentage of throws that resulted in an interception was also tied-21st in the league with 2% (tied with the Eagles and Chargers). 10.6% of defensive drives resulted in an offensive turnover, which places 22nd in the league. These numbers do not scream playmaking on the back end. Adding a player like Hamilton will give Glenn and Pleasant another high calibre piece to use in the passing game, giving our pass rushers more time to apply pressure to opposing QBs.
Also speaking of the draft, the drop off in terms of safety talent between 1.2 and 2.2 is much more significant than the drop off in edge talent. By my reckoning at this point, there are seven edges who are “first-round talents”; Aiden Hutchinson, Kayvon Thibodeaux, Purdue's George Karlaftis, FSU’s ACC Defensive Player of the Year and Senior Bowl standout Jermaine Johnson II, Michigan's David Ojabo, USC's Drake Jackson, and South Carolina's Kingsley Enagbere. Some of these first-round edges on my own personal board are being consistently mocked around or after the end of the first round and the start of the second. These are Ojabo, Jackson, and Enagbare. If you’re a fan of Thibodeaux, Ojabo offers the physical upside without the premium cost and perhaps without the injury questions that float around the Oregon edge. If you like Hutchinson’s work ethic and personality, I point you in the direction of JJ2, a beast who never takes a down off and transferred from a great Georgia defence to a not-so-good Noles defence to get snaps and to show his worth. There are some other edges in this range that I have not gotten round to watching the film on yet, like Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto, Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders, and Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie, so the list of edge rushers who are first-round talents according to my own board could change by further tape study and workout numbers. However, there is only one safety who I see as a true "first-round" talent, and that's Hamilton. There are some safeties who are getting second-round grades according to the consensus; Michigan’s Daxton Hill, Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker, and Georgia’s Lewis Cine. However, the difference in talent between these three and Hamilton is vaster than the difference in talent between Hutchinson and JJ2 for instance. Therefore, it would stand that it would be better practise to go BPA and take Hamilton, and then draft an edge if the board says to do so with the Rams’ first-round pick this year or at 2.2. I won't speak to the financial side of this argument, as this is something Erik Schlitt covered in his aforementioned article so I defer to his expertise on that topic and point you in the direction of that article.
This belief also stands us a better chance to trade down than if we were beholden with just the edge position. If the Jaguars take one of the two edges at 1.1, we would not be locked into staying at 1.2 to take the other. Furthermore, say the Jaguars follow the example of the Chiefs in 2013 and take Evan Neal at 1.1, this would leave us with three potential picks on the board. This would mean that if one of the New York teams come calling to jump the Texans to a prospect (maybe Saleh sees one of the edges as his new Nick Bosa for the Jets), we would not be as worried about moving down a few spots as it would still be likely that one of these three would fall to us. This is especially true since Stingley is also in play for these teams while we are reasonably deep at the corner position, and the Texans and Giants both have questions at the quarterback position and could fall in love with Kenny “Babyhands” Pickett, buy into the Senior Bowl hype around Liberty's Malik Willis, or want to see if Corral’s success this season can translate to the NFL from Kiffin’s system at Ole Miss.
For me, the team would be better served drafting Hamilton and then targeting one of the edges I mention above either with the Rams pick or at 2.2 as this still gives us another solid edge but also fills a massive need on the backend of our defence. Plus, what better way to “bribe” Glenn not to take a head coach position with another head coach needy team than to give him a blue-chip prospect for him to work with and mould into a star in this league? Add an LB to develop alongside Barnes and we have a potentially electric defence on our hands.
Combine this with a sustained level of performance from the offence, an easier strength of schedule compared to the season just gone, and a weakened NFC North where two teams will have a completely new regime and the other will be without their best two players from this season because they’re $40 million over the cap and said players are disgruntled, and maybe just maybe we have a shot at our first divisional title since 1993 (how have the Bucs won our division more recently than we have?). Or maybe I’m drinking too much of the Honolulu Blue Kool-Aid.
What do you think? Does drafting Hamilton at 2 make sense to you, or do you favour a QB or Edge?
Player snap counts and defensive stats via Pro Football Reference
Contract numbers and cap space via Spotrac
Hamilton stats via Sports Reference
Pod Links: linktr.ee/roarofthelionsuk