For two years now, Kyle Hamilton has defied positional norms. As a star junior at Notre Dame, he was listed as a free safety, except he played a majority of his snaps in the slot. In Baltimore, the first-round pick started his rookie season operating primarily as a deep safety, only to emerge by midseason as the Ravens’ primary nickelback.

Now, though, he’s back to safety. Whatever that means.

“He’ll be a safety,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said after Tuesday’s practice at organized team activities, noting that such a role wouldn’t preclude Hamilton from reappearing in the slot. “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, they’re running from on the line of scrimmage back to the deep middle. We do a lot with those guys, so the fact that he’s able to do all that really helps us be who we want to be on defense.”

Hamilton’s versatility was a revelation for one of the NFL’s best defenses last season. His range and ball skills had made him a top-10 prospect and potentially generational talent at safety. What he showcased instead was an untapped pass-rush skill set, a take-no-prisoners approach near the line of scrimmage and a veteran’s feel for shallow zone coverages. By season’s end, Hamilton was Pro Football Focus’ highest-rated safety. (Never mind that he was mostly lining up on turf more familiar to cornerbacks and linebackers.)

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

If it was tempting to see Hamilton as the Ravens’ long-term answer in the slot, the notion did not survive for long. At the NFL scouting combine in March, Harbaugh said he envisioned Hamilton primarily as a safety. Two weeks later, the Ravens traded Chuck Clark to the New York Jets, clearing a path for Hamilton to pair with Marcus Williams in 2023.

“It’s June 6, so we’re still getting the kinks out at this point,” Hamilton said Tuesday. “But as of right now, I’ve been getting a lot of reps at safety. I didn’t get a ton of reps at safety last year, just in terms of the room that we had and the positions I was playing, what positions I was put in. But yes, there’s still a lot to learn, for me, back there at that position at this level, given the lack of experience I had last year. But like I said, I’m learning new stuff every day, making new mistakes and getting more comfortable day by day.”

Just how different will Hamilton’s role be this season? His coaches can’t say for sure, not this early. Hamilton said he feels capable of doing “a multitude of things.” The possibilities are too early to predict, too fascinating to ignore.

Still, there are clues. One is Clark’s role: He lined up for a majority of his snaps as a deep safety last season, according to PFF, but spent nearly half of his time closer to the line of scrimmage, where Hamilton starred as a rookie. Williams was effectively the team’s designated deep safety.

Just as revealing, though, could be Hamilton’s own experience — his strengths, his weaknesses, his evolution from an inconsistent deep-lying defensive back into a more assertive, more effective slot defender. As the Ravens figure out Hamilton’s next big step in Baltimore, they’ll have to consider the smaller steps he took to get there.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Week 2

The Ravens’ collapse against the Miami Dolphins served as both a “Welcome to the NFL” and a “Farewell to deep safety” moment for Hamilton. After playing 21 snaps there in Week 1 against the New York Jets, he played 24 against the Dolphins, none more crucial than the one he botched in the fourth quarter of the eventual 42-38 loss.

Hamilton’s overaggressiveness as the single-high safety in a three-deep coverage left cornerback Marcus Peters helpless on a 48-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Rather than stay even with Hill’s vertical route, Hamilton tried to cut off a deep crossing pattern. Bad idea.

Hamilton averaged just 15.3 defensive snaps per game over the next three weeks, and it wasn’t until Williams hurt his wrist in Week 5 that he returned to a more regular role. And when Hamilton did reestablish himself in the rotation, he did so closer to the line of scrimmage. Hamilton lined up as a deep safety just 11 times over the season’s final 10 weeks, including the playoffs, according to PFF, never more than four times in a game. The slot became his primary domain.

Week 3

Hamilton played just 16 defensive snaps in a 37-26 road win over the New England Patriots, but he made one of the game’s pivotal plays, chasing down future Ravens wide receiver Nelson Agholor from behind and stripping him to preserve a 31-26 lead midway through the fourth quarter.

Hamilton’s hustle was perhaps his most reliable quality. It made him a regular on special teams, where he played 65.4% of the snaps (fifth most on the team) despite his defensive workload.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Week 7

Hamilton didn’t have a sack in his football career entering a late-October game against the Cleveland Browns — not in high school, not in college. It wasn’t long before he looked like a natural, or at least as natural as a safety can look rushing the passer.

Hamilton swiped past Browns right guard Hjalte Froholdt for a third-down sack of quarterback Jacoby Brissett in the first quarter of the eventual 23-20 win. He notched his second and final sack of the season in the Week 15 loss to Cleveland, flying in from the slot on a well-timed blitz, as he so often did. Overall, on just 33 pass-rush snaps, Hamilton finished with eight pressures (two sacks, three hits and three hurries) and a “win” rate of 19.4%, according to PFF, the highest among safeties with at least 20 such snaps.

Week 11

Over the first half of the season, the Ravens struggled at times to defend wide receiver screens. Miami wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and Tagovailoa turned one into a short score. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady averaged a solid 0.18 expected points added per attempt on his five screens. The Buffalo Bills’ Josh Allen and New York Giants’ Daniel Jones attempted just one apiece, but got critical gains.

After the Ravens’ Week 10 bye, though, Hamilton’s presence in the slot offered an effective deterrent. He was a chore to block, as Carolina Panthers wide receiver D.J. Moore found out in the Ravens’ 13-3 win. Over the final nine weeks of the season, including the playoffs, every quarterback who threw at least one wide receiver screen against the Ravens finished with a negative EPA on the throw type.

Week 13

After missing Week 12 with a minor knee injury, Hamilton didn’t wait long to throw himself back into the action. His first-quarter shedding of Denver Broncos tight end Greg Dulcich and takedown of running back Latavius Murray for a 4-yard gain in the first quarter wasn’t splashy, but it was sound.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

As a run defender, Hamilton had few growing pains. He trailed only Clark for the team lead in run stops (six), which PFF defines as any tackle keeping a gain to less than 40% of the line to gain on first down, less than 50% of the line to gain on second down, and any third- or fourth-down play kept without a first down or touchdown. Hamilton finished the season with 105 defensive snaps in the box, or 19.2% overall, showing no fear of taking on pulling linemen or advancing tight ends. Few safeties graded out better.

Week 14

Hamilton hit a late-season rough patch as he tried to recapture his pre-injury form. Four of his seven missed tackles happened over a four-week span in December, according to PFF, and his consistency in coverage suffered. Both were evident on running back Jaylen Warren’s third-down catch-and-run in the Ravens’ 16-14 win in Pittsburgh.

Hamilton went on to allow six completions on seven targets for 46 yards in the Week 15 loss to Cleveland. In the Ravens’ Week 14 and Week 17 games against Pittsburgh, he gave up a combined 108 yards in coverage on 9-for-9 passing. Steelers wide receiver Steven Sims’ 28-yard completion late in the fourth quarter — despite a holding call on Hamilton — helped set up quarterback Kenny Pickett’s go-ahead touchdown in the Ravens’ 16-13 home loss.

Week 18

The Ravens rarely played man coverage in their first year under defensive coordinator Mike Macdonald. When they did, Hamilton was a better match athletically against tight ends. According to Sports Info Solutions, he got just four snaps in man-to-man against a wide receiver last season — and allowed three completions on three targets for 45 yards.

Even some zone looks, though, could leave Hamilton flat-footed. In the Ravens’ regular-season finale, he bit on a head fake by Tyler Boyd that created just enough daylight for quarterback Joe Burrow to find the Bengals’ star slot receiver over the middle for a 12-yard gain early in Cincinnati’s eventual 27-16 win.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Wild-card round

Hamilton almost never left the field in the Ravens’ season-ending loss in Cincinnati, playing a season-high 92% of the defensive snaps. It was easy to find him, too: Hamilton lined up every time in the slot. From his perch inside, he forced a fumble, broke up a pass and generally made life difficult for the Bengals’ normally synced-up passing offense in the 24-17 loss.

Still, there were flashes of what he could look like in a different role. Before one of the Ravens’ four sacks, the defense rotated from a single-high look, with Williams playing center field and Clark lined up in the box, to a split-safety coverage, with Hamilton backpedaling into a two-deep shell as other defenders rotated into his underneath zone. The changing pre-snap picture flummoxed Burrow long enough for the Ravens’ pass rush to get home and force a fourth-and-long.

“I think what we have is moving parts,” Harbaugh said in March. “We’re not going to be a defense that’s static. Our guys are going to be playing different positions. We’re going to disguise. We’re going to blitz.”

A multitude of things, in other words. Just what the Ravens want from Hamilton.

jonas.shaffer@thebaltimorebanner.com

Jonas Shaffer is a Ravens beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Ravens for The Baltimore Sun. Shaffer graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Silver Spring.

More From The Banner