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Hamilton on Broadway? Top safety could present tough decision for Jets

Safety Kyle Hamilton (No. 14) has potential to be a game-changer but plays a position not often drafted in the top 10. Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. Irish 'unicorn': If the Jets select Notre Dame safety Kyle Hamilton with the fourth pick in the NFL draft, it will spark a fan-base revolt that might rival the hysteria caused by the Kyle Brady-Warren Sapp decision in 1995. Hamilton is a top prospect, but there's a belief -- shared by some in the NFL -- that safety is a non-premium position and doesn't warrant a high pick.

That's narrow-minded thinking. If he's good enough to be a game-changer, take him.

Coach Robert Saleh shares that sentiment. He acknowledged that safety isn't on the same level as quarterback, pass-rusher or left tackle, but "you can never say no to a unicorn and someone who has a tremendous talent and is clearly the best possible player you can take at that particular time," he said. "You never want to be stubborn. To answer your question, to take a safety if he’s worthy of it, he'd definitely be in the discussion."

Saleh said his previous team, the San Francisco 49ers, thought long and hard about picking safety Derwin James with the ninth pick in 2018. They wound up taking tackle Mike McGlinchey, as James -- now a star -- slid to the Los Angeles Chargers at 17. Saleh has a lot of San Francisco in his DNA, so you have to believe it's not just lip service when he talks about the possibility of drafting a non-premium position. (That year, he actually lobbied for middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. More on that in item 3.)

The bigger question: How does Joe Douglas feel about a safety? Speaking to reporters at the scouting combine, the general manager gave the obligatory "best-player-available" answer when asked about picking one in the top 10. But know this about Douglas: He subscribes to the premium-position philosophy, one of the reasons why he didn't meet safety Jamal Adams' contract demands and traded him in 2020. Look at his drafts: They pretty much stick to that formula, although he deviated last year with guard Alijah Vera-Tucker at 14 overall.

The Jets are high on Hamilton, as I've previously reported, but it's too early in the process to say he is (or isn't) their guy. It could be a fascinating decision. If defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and tackles Evan Neal and Ikem Ekwonu are off the board, the Jets will have a choice of Hamilton, edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux and any of the cornerbacks. People who know Douglas and Saleh believe they'd lean toward the edge rusher unless they're among those not sold on Thibodeaux's motor, which some scouts say runs hot and cold.

The franchise has endured some bad experiences with first-round safeties. Calvin Pryor was a bust and Adams busted his way out of town. Hamilton is not another Pryor or Adams, which is to say he's not a one-dimensional player who struggles to find the football. He's a 6-foot-4 and 220-pound ball magnet who can play deep middle, box and slot, and would give the Jets the interceptor they haven't had since early Kerry Rhodes, circa 2007. Hamilton is, according to some talent evaluators, a unicorn.

NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah, who scouted with Douglas for the Baltimore Ravens, said Hamilton is worthy of one of the top picks. Jeremiah disagrees with the conventional wisdom about safeties, noting the position is more important than ever because of wide-open passing. As for Hamilton, he said, "I think this kid is pretty unique. ... I think Kyle Hamilton stacks up really well with everybody in this draft."

2. Did you know? The last safety to be drafted in the top four was Eric Turner, chosen second overall in 1991 by the Cleveland Browns. Since 2000, only nine cracked the top 10, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Adams was one of those.

3. Old college try: Here's a funny draft-related story about Saleh from 2018. At the time, he was the 49ers' defensive coordinator and wasn't shy about expressing his preference. He actually wore an Edmunds jersey to a pre-draft meeting on linebackers. Looking back, Saleh acknowledged it would've been unconventional to pick an off-ball linebacker in the first round, but he felt Edmunds was "a unicorn in the linebacker world."

Saleh didn't get Edmunds, but the story has a happy ending because they drafted future All-Pro Fred Warner in the third round.

4. Best for Wilson: There's a lot of chatter about the best way to help quarterback Zach Wilson. There's no doubt he'd benefit from a stronger defense, as Saleh articulated, but let's not overthink this.

The Jets lost a lot of games last season because of below-average quarterback play. No one will take them seriously until Wilson reaches the "average" level, and he won't get there without a better rushing attack and a third option in the passing game, either a wide receiver or a tight end to complement wideouts Corey Davis and Elijah Moore.

The most direct way to accelerate Wilson's progress is to improve the cast around him. So, yes, offense gets a slight edge over defense on the priority list, but here's the thing: They can address both. It's not like they're shy on resources. And, of course, the picture could change after free agency.

5. Not-so-jumbo Jets: Douglas needs to be mindful of size as he rebuilds the wide-receiver position. The Jets were the only team last season whose three leading receivers were under 6-feet -- Jamison Crowder (5-foot-9), Braxton Berrios (5-foot-9) and Moore (5-foot-10). Their leading rusher was Michael Carter (5-foot-8).

They should be bigger in 2022. For one thing, Davis (6-foot-3) will return from his core-muscle injury. There's potential turnover in the slot, with Crowder and Berrios heading to free agency.

6. Jets South: Wilson is expected to be in South Florida to lead informal workouts with Davis, Moore and Berrios, among others.

7. Maye day: The prevailing thought on safety Marcus Maye, four months removed from Achilles' surgery, was that he'd have a post-draft market in free agency because of his rehab. There's interest out there right now. Don't be surprised if he signs elsewhere before the draft.

8. Cap casualty? The Jets have to make a decision on defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins by the fifth day of the league year. If he's still on the roster by then, part of his 2022 base salary ($1.25 million of $4.5 million) becomes fully guaranteed. Right now, that portion is guaranteed for injury only.

Rankins, who signed a two-year, $11 million contract last offseason, played 57% of the defensive snaps, mainly as a pass-rusher, but finished with only three sacks. He was disruptive at times, as he ranked 12th in pass rush win rate (12.4%) among qualifying interior linemen, per ESPN Stats & Information. He also stayed healthy, something he had struggled to do in the past.

Is that worth $6.2 million, his cap charge? It's a tough call, especially on a big-money defensive line. Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams and John Franklin-Myers are counting a combined $38.1 million on the cap. If they cut Rankins, they would be thin at defensive tackle, with Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd heading to free agency.

9. Quinnen's future: The decision to exercise Williams' fifth-year option for 2023 was a no-brainer. The real issue is whether the former third-overall pick will get a contract extension before the season.

The Jets aren't in any hurry. After all, his combined salary for the next two years is a team-friendly $16.4 million (fully guaranteed), including a projected $11.5 million for the option year in 2023. Williams, extension-eligible for the first time, might be better off waiting until after the season.

He's had two good years in a row, but not that monster season that would validate a $20 million-a-year demand. Maybe that happens in 2022. Presumably, he will have a better supporting cast (including the return of a healthy Lawson) and more familiarity with the system. If it all clicks, he will have serious leverage.

10. The last word: Every team is looking for "dogs," right? Ekwonu, the North Carolina State tackle, played one as a youngster. Speaking to reporters at the combine, he recalled, "I did a little musical theater when I was a kid. ... I was in '101 Dalmatians.' I was Pongo the Dog, so that was a big step for me."