Defensive player primed for bigger roles in 2023: Kyle Hamilton, Nakobe Dean and more

2MACY75 Baltimore Ravens safety Kyle Hamilton during an NFL football game against the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium, Sunday, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2022 in Foxborough, Mass. (Winslow Townson/AP Images for Panini)

Kyle Hamilton picking up where he left off: Hamilton earned an 86.7 PFF grade over exactly 600 snaps of action last year, and he started the final five games of the season.

Nakobe Dean to hit the ground running: An obvious succession plan from the outset, Dean now steps in to be a starter on defense after playing fewer than 50 snaps in his rookie season.

• The perfect time for Brian Asamoah: Asamoah flashed ability for the Vikings in Year 1 and may be better suited to the new scheme employed by Brian Flores this year, which will place more emphasis on athleticism and man-coverage skills.

Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes

With the bulk of offseason additions made, it’s possible to start fully projecting what the 2023 NFL season will look like with each team’s new personnel.

Training camp and preseason will affect those projections, and there are free-agent signings still to be made — with injuries only ever a rep away. But for the most part, we should have a good grasp of players we expect to have a bigger or smaller role this season than they had in the past.

Here are eight defenders who should be in line for an expanded role this season.

S Kyle Hamilton, Baltimore Ravens

Hamilton was one of the best safety prospects to enter the draft in years and was taken No. 14 overall by the Ravens in 2022. His role as a rookie varied considerably throughout the season, ranging from a do-it-all box safety to deeper-lying free safety to safety who spent most of his time matching up with slot weapons.

There were some struggles in that menu of assignments, but he earned an 86.7 PFF grade over exactly 600 snaps of action, and he started the final five games of the season. The Ravens won’t have seen anything to sour expectations of a player with exceptional physical tools and the ability to be a difference-maker in their defense. If his final five starts represent his likely playing time going forward, then he should expect to be on the field for at least 250 more snaps in Year 2 than he was his first season.

Kyle Hamilton: Snaps by alignment in 2022
Alignment Snaps played
Defensive line 36
Box 106
Slot corner 354
Wide corner 12
Free safety 92

EDGE David Ojabo, Baltimore Ravens

Ojabo's return to the field after tearing his Achilles tendon during his pro-day was remarkable. An injury that typically sidelines players for a full year only kept Ojabo off the field until Week 15, and he finished his rookie season with 23 snaps under his belt.

He now enters Year 2 with a full offseason of recovery to attack his professional career for real. Baltimore’s defense still has the kind of opportunity for a playmaking at edge rusher as they did when they drafted Ojabo — if not even more opportunity — so he should get plenty of playing time this season alongside Odafe Oweh and Tyus Bowser.

With such little on-field evidence, it’s impossible to accurately predict what he will look like, but the fact that he made it back at all and that Baltimore spent pick No. 45 on him despite that Achilles injury suggests they have tremendous confidence in what he can do going forward.

EDGE James Houston IV, Detroit Lions

One of the most surprising rookie performances last season was from James Houston IV, Detroit’s 2022 sixth-rounder, who finished with the best pass-rushing grade of any rookie edge rusher and notched eight sacks from just 92 pass-rushing snaps.

Detroit only really stumbled into Houston late in the year, and he played 140 total snaps over just seven games, starting the last two. He generated at least one pressure in every game he played and at least three pressures in three games despite topping 20 rushes just once over the year.

Houston is the classic case of a player who was spectacular on a very small sample size, so the onus is on Detroit to scale up his workload and see if the elite play still holds or if his future is in a situational or smaller role going forward.

Whatever his true ceiling is, he has earned significantly more playing time this season.

S Reed Blankenship, Philadelphia Eagles

Good NFL teams plan strategically for the future and the inevitable roster turnover that comes each year. Great teams get those personnel calls right and see a seamless transition while getting younger and cheaper the position in question.

Reed Blankenship is one of those players who will step into a starting role after playing 348 snaps last season. Over those snaps, he earned a 79.4 overall PFF grade and was better than average in every facet of play, but now he has to sustain that high level across a workload that will likely triple.

Blankenship was an undrafted free agent in 2022, so he likely was never intended to be an obvious heir apparent to a starting position, but he has played his way into that role and allowed Philadelphia to move in a different direction this offseason.

LB Nakobe Dean, Philadelphia Eagles

A much more obvious succession plan from the outset, Dean now steps in to be a starter on defense after playing fewer than 50 snaps in his rookie season.

Dean, a third-round pick a year ago, was the leader of arguably the best college defense the game has ever seen and earned a 76.3 PFF grade during the preseason a year ago. With the loss of both T.J. Edwards and Kyzir White over the offseason, the Eagles need to fill over 2,000 snaps of playing time, and Dean is the obvious choice to account for around half of that.

The Eagles also have a recent history of being happy to overlook less-than-prototypical measurements at linebacker.

LB Brian Asamoah, Minnesota Vikings

Another linebacker slated to step into a starting role after biding his time as a rookie, Brian Asamoah flashed ability for the Vikings in Year 1 and may be better suited to the new scheme employed by Brian Flores this year, which will place more emphasis on athleticism and man-coverage skills.

Asamoah earned a 78.8 PFF grade last season, with the bulk of the quality coming in coverage. He played just 121 snaps in total, so one spectacular play where he stripped the ball from his opponent to single-handedly create a turnover certainly weighs heavily in that grade, but he showed impressive athleticism along with that outstanding turnover.

With Minnesota moving on from Eric Kendricks, the team will be hoping Asamoah can scale up his role and maintain that playmaking ability alongside Jordan Hicks.

EDGE Arden Key, Tennessee Titans

A third-round pick back in 2018, Arden Key entered the league with a certain body type that has struggled to transition to the NFL — long and underweight — and after a rookie season in which he played almost 650 snaps, he saw his playing time scaled way back.

Since then, he has added weight — and with it, strength — emerging as a really effective situational pass-rusher for multiple teams in the last few seasons. He posted a 79.4 pass-rushing grade for the 49ers before moving to Jacksonville and earning a mark of 73.5 with the most playing time since that rookie season. Now in Tennessee, Key will look to prove he can be a full-time starter rather than just a situational player.

The Titans said goodbye to Bud Dupree in the offseason, while Harold Landry III is coming off a serious injury. Some players will push Key for playing time, but his play in recent seasons has given him the opportunity to push for a bigger role.

S Daxton Hill, Cincinnati Bengals

Hill was a draft selection that raised eyebrows at the time. His 13 games with six or fewer snaps on defense illustrated why, but it was never a pick for 2022.

Rather, it was a pick for the following year after the team had let Jessie Bates III walk out of the door for more money elsewhere. The loss of Vonn Bell in the same offseason only places more focus on Hill stepping into a starting role after a rookie season that was more of a redshirt year than anything else.

Hill started one game last year when injury forced him into the lineup, but overall was deployed more on special teams (167 snaps) than on defense (130, with 66 coming in that one start).

He has the versatility to line up wherever they need him to within the defense and operate from any safety alignment, and this season he is going to have to show that across a full-time position.


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