The very qualities that made Kyle Hamilton such an intriguing prospect — frame fit for an outside linebacker, a chameleonic gift for morphing from one play to the next — made him a puzzle for Ravens coaches, who are trying to win as many games as possible, right now.
“We’re just now just tapping into things that he can do,” secondary coach Chris Hewitt acknowledged after the Ravens’ Week 9 win over the New Orleans Saints. “He’s a unique player.”
Against the Saints, that meant the 6-foot-4, 221-pound Hamilton was the team’s No. 1 option at nickel back, covering sprinter-fast wide receiver Chris Olave on one play, leaving his man to flatten a running back in the open field on another and helping set up sacks for his teammates with his brawny work as a pass rusher. So many talents pieced together in one package, and the Ravens finally seemed to know the best way to activate them all.
“I feel like we were all figuring it out,” Hamilton said. “Obviously, I play safety; that’s the position they drafted me at. But at the same time, given my skill set — I can play multiple positions, and we have such a deep safety room — as long as it gets me on the field and I’m productive doing it, I don’t see an issue.”
The Ravens answered two questions — how would their top 2022 draft pick impact winning, and who would take the lead at their unsettled nickel spot? — with one personnel deployment.
Teammates have noticed Hamilton coming into his own, not just in New Orleans but in the Ravens’ Week 8 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
“I think he has really come along pretty strong lately,” cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “He’s such an un-positional player. He can kind of just about play anywhere, and I think he’s best when he’s able to play here, play there, play there, and that’s a really unique skill set. … When he’s just able to play free and play all over, he can do some special things. And I think we’re kind of coming up with a recipe for him.”
When asked why the Ravens have discombobulated opposing offenses in recent weeks, veteran outside linebacker Justin Houston pointed to their unpredictability. Unprompted, he mentioned Hamilton as a leading reason why they’re difficult to plan for. “Hamilton is moving all over the place,” he said. “They don’t know where he’s lining up.”
Puzzles are not bad; they’re actually quite engaging. But they don’t offer instant gratification, and that was the rub for Ravens fans, who heard the gushing when Hamilton was drafted No. 14 overall and assumed he would slot right in as a polished starter.
So they panicked when receivers blew past him in one-on-one drills, scrutinized his body language for signs of indifference and leaped to wondering if he was bust after his mental mistakes — for which he took immediate, pained responsibility — contributed to the Ravens’ fourth-quarter debacle against the Miami Dolphins in Week 2.
Never mind that Hamilton also sprinkled in some wonderful moments, especially the play on which he chased down New England Patriots wide receiver Nelson Agholor for a game-saving strip, or that his Pro Football Focus grades said he was doing good work in a modest role.
After every-down starter Marcus Williams, the team’s top free-agent addition in the offseason, dislocated his wrist in Week 5, the Ravens seemed to confirm fans’ misgivings about Hamilton when they turned to Geno Stone, previously an afterthought in the rotation, as their new solution on the back end. Hamilton’s defensive snaps ticked up, from a season-low 14 in Week 5 to 29 in Week 6, but Stone was the guy coaches trusted to be on the field at all times. From Weeks 3 to 7, Hamilton never played more than 45% of the Ravens’ defensive snaps.
He grew into a hellacious special teams performer, a familiar back channel where young Ravens defenders win the affections of coach John Harbaugh and his staff, but could not crack that ceiling.
Did his spirits sink during this period?
“It’s all about respect and earning playing time,” Hamilton said. “No matter what pick I was, I was making mistakes that were not part of the defense, giving stuff up. If I didn’t play as much and that was the reason for it — not saying that it was — but if that was the reason, I fully understand it, and I can’t be frustrated with anybody but myself.”
The choice of Stone to fill in for Williams was as much about fit as anything Hamilton did or did not do. Some of the rookie’s multipronged talents — pressuring opposing quarterbacks, picking up tight ends on underneath routes, serving as a secondary enforcer against the run — would be wasted if the Ravens simply planted him deep in coverage. Coaches also had not figured out a durable solution in the slot, where they auditioned rookie cornerback Damarion “Pepe” Williams and second-year defensive back Brandon Stephens while also turning to Humphrey on occasion.
They figured out how to get Hamilton on the field — 53% of defensive snaps against Tampa Bay, a season-high 75% against New Orleans — in part by recognizing that he was the ideal fifth defensive back in many situations. He played more defensive snaps against the Saints than Williams and Stephens combined.
“He’s kind of an unconventional body [at nickel],” defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald said. “He’s so big and takes up a lot of space. One thing it allows you to do is, he’s very good on the perimeter game, the RPO game on the perimeter. Obviously, he’s a good blitzer coming off the edge. And then if you need him to play a deep zone, some nickels are able to do it, but he’s a safety by trade, so he can play back there as well.”
Hamilton said he did not play much nickel at Notre Dame, though Pro Football Focus’ charting showed he played more in the slot than deep or in the box last season. He compared the shift to moving from point guard to shooting guard in the middle of a basketball game.
“It’s a completely different viewpoint,” he said.
That doesn’t mean it will be this way every week. New Orleans presented some unusual problems with versatile running back Alvin Kamara and wildcat quarterback Taysom Hill. Harbaugh said Wednesday that the Ravens’ picture at nickel is far from settled.
“If solidified means like just one guy being out there the whole time, I’d say probably no, and we’re probably not going to be there this season,” he said. “You mentioned Kyle Hamilton before playing nickel; we’re probably going to do it by personnel group and just circumstances and the game plan. You’ve seen Marlon in there; he’ll probably continue to go in there. So, I think we’ll be moving guys around.”
Harbaugh did not want to pigeonhole Hamilton as a nickel back going forward. At the same time, he agreed the Ravens have figured out some win-now utilities for their top pick and that Hamilton has responded with more decisive play.
“He’s not going to be limited to any of those spots certainly in the future, but for right now, the way we’re set up, the nickel and the dime spot are good spots for him,” Harbaugh said. “Those guys, in some of our disguises and the way we rotate some of the coverages, the nickel and the dime run back and play deep plenty of times. So, it’s all kind of interchangeable. He’s done a great job, and [he’s] playing good ball.”
The rookie’s evolving role need not be threatened by Williams’ return (on target for December, Harbaugh said recently), so there’s little reason to think his surge will be fleeting.
Hamilton’s tape reveals many little treats. You might see the most decorated quarterback in league history, Tom Brady, throw the ball away because the rookie locked up his tight end. Or you might see Hamilton fire off the line of scrimmage and beat a guard with a pass-rush move. He eats up ground with his gliding stride, but he’s always looking for someone to hit.
Though Pro Football Focus grades aren’t the be-all, end-all, especially not for a part-time player, Hamilton’s marks line up with his teammates’ reviews. His overall 81.5 ranks fourth among all safeties, but it’s the breakdown — 71.1 for run defense, 71.6 for pass rush, 80.5 for coverage — that speaks to his versatility.
“I would say yeah,” Hamilton answered when asked if he’s making quicker, smarter decisions. “I would just say it’s trusting myself more, trusting my teammates, my teammates trusting me. It’s just all coming to fruition at this point.”
Panthers at Ravens
Sunday, 1 p.m.
TV: Ch. 45
Radio: 97.9 FM, 101.5 FM, 1090 AM
Line: Ravens by 13