How Damar Hamlin, one of the Bills' sixth-round picks, has a clear path to a roster spot
Bear with me on this because it might sound a little irrational, but the one player in the Buffalo Bills’ 2021 draft class who may have the best chance of playing in all 17 games is safety Damar Hamlin.
That’s right, the University of Pittsburgh standout the Bills used the second of their three sixth-round picks on, No. 212 overall.
Crazy, you say?
Well, here’s the rationale.
Hamlin joins a Buffalo roster that is noticeably thin at safety after the free agent departure of veteran Dean Marlowe. Starters Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer are entrenched, and Jaquan Johnson will be back for a third season as a backup. But the only other safety on the roster is 2020 undrafted free agent Josh Thomas who spent most of the year on the practice squad and got into only two games.
Unless the Bills add some veteran competition before training camp or perhaps at the end of training camp once league-wide cuts are made – which is not out of the question – Hamlin has a great chance to earn the fourth safety spot.
That quest begins Friday when the Bills start their three-day rookie minicamp on the practice fields behind the fieldhouse at One Bills Drive.
First and foremost, the aggressive 6-foot, 200-pounder had a very productive career at Pitt as he started 40 of 48 games, made 290 tackles, broke up 27 passes and intercepted six. It’s clear that he can play, but as solid as all those numbers look, his ticket to making the roster is that he excelled on special teams.
Last season, Poyer led the entire Buffalo defense in snaps played with 1,010 and Hyde was second at 938. Barring injuries, that will probably be the case in 2021, too.
The backups, Marlowe and Johnson, played in 15 and 14 games, respectively, and while they didn’t get much time on defense, they were core members of the special teams.
During the pre-draft process, Hamlin was considered by draft analysts to be a player who will be able to come in and make an immediate impact on special teams while learning the defensive scheme.
If that proves correct, you know special teams coach Heath Farwell will be angling to make sure Hamlin not only makes the 53-man roster, but also that he be active each week along with other key special teamers such as Johnson, Tyler Matakevich, Siran Neal and Andre Smith.
“Throughout this whole process I’ve just been preaching that I’m willing to do whatever just to be a contributor on the team,” Hamlin said the day he was selected. “I don’t care if I got to pass out water at halftime. I just want to be on a winning team and contribute. No matter what it is I’m willing to do it. I don’t got no pride. If you know me, you know I’m a team player from Day 1. No matter what it is, I’m ready to do it. If coach needs it, I’m there.”
That’s the attitude every rookie needs to have, but when you’re a sixth-round pick, you have to be able to prove your worth, too. In the NFL, they don’t just hand you a job because you’re willing to fill water bottles if need be.
That’s what Hamlin’s longtime friend and former Pitt teammate, Dane Jackson, did last season in Buffalo. The Bills picked the cornerback in the seventh round, and while his odds of making the team weren’t great, he did it.
Ultimately, he was active for five games and in 193 snaps he made 15 tackles, recovered a fumble, intercepted a pass, and broke up five. Heading into 2021, Jackson – whom Hamlin has known since they were little kids growing up in Pittsburgh – will compete for a starting job against Levi Wallace.
Hamlin kept tabs on Jackson’s rookie season and learned from it. “Just the process of being a rookie and the confidence level that he had going from camp to starting when he did start,” said Hamlin.
“Just seeing that from him, even when I was still at school, gave me the confidence that I belong at this level. To be able to be on the same team as him once again, I know my work ethic and I know his work ethic. I know we’ll be in each other’s back pocket and I know he’ll be a tool for me to be an asset to this team as much as I can.”
Hamlin first enrolled at Pitt in 2016 but an injury limited him to three games. He missed three of 12 games in 2017 because of an injury and then never missed a game or start thereafter.
He led the Panthers in tackles in 2018 with 90, finished second in 2019 with 84, and at that point he thought his time in college was done. However, since 2016, the NCAA changed the minimum number of games you could play before it counted as a year of eligibility.
When it was raised from three to four, Hamlin petitioned for his 2016 season to be considered a redshirt year and the NCAA approved his request, thus allowing him to play in 2020.
If that hadn’t happened, perhaps Hamlin would have been drafted in 2020, but he felt that one more season at Pitt would enhance his status. He went on to lead the Panthers with 67 tackles and nine pass breakups (they played only 10 games), and he had two interceptions while earning second-team all-ACC honors.
“I love this guy,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said of Hamlin when the Bills picked him. “Everything’s average across the board except the way he plays the game. … I can guarantee you right now, he’s going to make the 53-man roster as a special-teams maven, and he’ll develop into a playmaker and a contributor in the back end for the Bills.”
Sal Maiorana can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.