While the team’s performance as a whole underwhelmed, the Pittsburgh Panthers had a surprising amount of NFL talent on their defense in 2020. The line was buoyed by prospects such as Patrick Jones II, Rashad Weaver, and Jalen Twyman. Paris Ford flashed his playmaking traits, even amidst a more inconsistent final season. But there’s one more name that deserves to be mentioned in the Panthers’ NFL Draft mix: Pittsburgh safety Damar Hamlin.
Damar Hamlin NFL Draft Profile & Senior Bowl Measurements
- Position: Safety
- School: Pittsburgh
- Current Year: Redshirt Senior
- Height: 6’0 5/8″
- Weight: 201 pounds
- Wingspan: 77 1/2″
- Arm: 32″
- Hand: 9 1/8″
Although he has the least name recognition among his fellow Pittsburgh NFL Draft prospects, Hamlin was a highly-rated recruit coming out of high school. One of the prospects signed in Pat Narduzzi’s early years, Hamlin was drawn to Pittsburgh’s promise on the defensive side of the ball.
Of course, it wasn’t an easy decision for Hamlin, and it wasn’t easy for the Panthers to pry him away from other schools. By the end of his recruiting process, the four-star prospect had offers from Notre Dame, Ohio State, Clemson, Penn State, and Auburn, just to name a few. But Hamlin, being from the Pittsburgh area, found it difficult to turn down an opportunity at NFL development just a stone’s throw away.
Damar Hamlin’s career as a Pittsburgh safety
Coming in as the highest-rated defensive player from the state of Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh coaching staff aimed to involve Hamlin quickly in their scheme. But injuries slowed Hamlin’s rollout, and the Panthers ended up redshirting the rookie defender. In 2017, Hamlin still missed a few games due to injury, but he managed to play in nine games with four starts, totaling 41 tackles, 1.0 tackle for loss, and an interception.
In 2018, the Panthers’ coaches chose to move Hamlin to safety full-time, and the move bore fruit. Hamlin started all 14 games at safety for Pittsburgh, amassing 76 tackles, 3.0 tackles for loss, two interceptions, four pass deflections, and a fumble recovery. For his production, Hamlin received All-ACC honorable mention at the end of the year. From there, he was a fixture on the Panthers’ defense.
Hamlin’s final two years at Pittsburgh
Hamlin reprised his role as a safety for Pittsburgh in 2019, and again, thrived in that role alongside Paris Ford. In 12 games, Hamlin registered a career-high 84 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and ten pass deflections, another career-high. The Pittsburgh safety did miss one game due to injury. However, his injuries did not keep him off the field for extended periods of time, as they’d done in the past.
Through uncertainty, the 2020 college football season managed to materialize. Hamlin, now an elder statesman and a team captain for the Panthers, started all ten games. Over that stretch, he put up another productive season. He accumulated 66 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and seven pass deflections.
On December 12, Hamlin officially declared for the 2021 NFL Draft, forgoing the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA. He also joined the Senior Bowl roster in January.
Analyzing Damar Hamlin’s NFL Draft profile
At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Hamlin has decent size as a safety. He doesn’t have overwhelming length or density. Nevertheless, his size does help him compete in several phases. Hamlin also couples a few promising athletic traits with his size.
He’s fairly fluid with his hip transitions, and he also has flashes of excellent explosiveness and twitch. I want to see those flashes more often, but he has shown the capacity for urgent, sudden movement on occasion.
Where Hamlin has more utility is with his playmaking potential. In run defense, Hamlin does a good job of sniffing out running lanes. Although he doesn’t have the mass or elite range to get into the backfield consistently, he does have the ability to reach the holes and drop backs for short gains.
Additionally, in pass coverage, Hamlin has good ball skills, as evidenced by his six career interceptions and 21 career deflections. He brings a nice closing burst when at the catch point. He’s also active in using his length to disrupt passes. Furthermore, Hamlin brings a generally fast playstyle. As a tackler, he’s willing to throw his frame around to make solid contact. The Pittsburgh safety also has the aggressiveness to make plays coming downhill.
What are the concerns surrounding Damar Hamlin?
Although Hamlin has an aggressive style in the box, his frame doesn’t support his style of play. At just 195 pounds, Hamlin is noticeably light for NFL competition. This would be fine if he had more range and top-end speed, but Hamlin doesn’t. The Pittsburgh safety has great short-range explosiveness, but he maxes out relatively quickly. He doesn’t have that top gear that lighter coverage safeties need to have.
Additionally, Hamlin can sometimes be indecisive in coverage. This serves to compound his issues with range. With speed that likely measures in around the late 4.5s to early 4.6s, Hamlin needs to be quick and decisive with his decision-making. Sometimes, however, underneath routes can get him to freeze, leaving the deep third open for receivers to sneak by and gain separation.
When he’s in position, Hamlin can be a playmaker. However, maintaining proper positioning will be more challenging for him if he can’t utilize his explosiveness effectively.
Furthermore, Hamlin isn’t as consistent a tackler as desired. He has the ability to wrap up with his frame. He’s also not afraid to build momentum and hit his opponents head-on. However, at his size, Hamlin doesn’t bring the requisite play strength to muscle bigger players to the ground on his own. Running backs, receivers, and tight ends can slip out of Hamlin’s grasp if it’s not direct contact.
Damar Hamlin’s best fits in the 2021 NFL Draft
Both Pittsburgh safeties have their warts. That said, Paris Ford projects as the higher-upside player. Damar Hamlin still has some measured upside with his explosiveness, aggressiveness, and decent length. However, he has to further hone his instincts at the next level, and he has to add to his frame. Otherwise, he won’t have the positioning consistency to employ his playmaking ability. He won’t have the density to win at the contact point, either.
With all that being said, Hamlin does have some appeal in the later rounds. His aggressive nature makes him a good fit on special teams. He also displayed some versatility in his time at Pittsburgh. Hamlin has experience both in the slot and in two-high alignments, and that versatility could help him break in a role as a rotational defender with special teams utility. And in time, if he can refine his game, he could be a potential starter.
How might Hamlin mesh with NFL teams?
Of course, that’s a bit too much projection at this point. In reality, every player has a chance to become a starter. Quantifying those chances, however, some players have better odds than others. Hamlin is facing an uphill battle on that front.
Nevertheless, with his leadership ability, experience, and measured upside, Hamlin has some late-round appeal for most teams looking for safety depth and special teams ability. His stock isn’t great enough to demand specific fits, but that also allows some freedom in Round 6 and Round 7.
There is time for Hamlin to improve his stock. With better-than-expected offseason testing and a standout showing at the Senior Bowl, he can improve his standing and present himself as a potential starter. And even if he isn’t drafted to contribute on defense right away, he should be able to stick around in a reserve role long enough to earn an opportunity.