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Packers draft preview: Acute need at safety

May 1, 2014
 
Green Bay Packers 2014 draft preview: Safeties
Green Bay Packers 2014 draft preview: Safeties: Pete Dougherty and Weston Hodkiewicz look at the safety prospects for the Green Bay Packers in the 2014 NFL draft. (April 30, 2014)
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of the Alabama Crimson Tide intercepts a pass against Mississippi State. / Getty Images

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The closest thing to a certainty for the Green Bay Packers’ draft next month is general manager Ted Thompson will select at least one safety after forgoing that position of great need last year.

The question is whether he’ll do it at pick No. 21 in the first round with a starting job open opposite Morgan Burnett, or wait a round or two.

Though Thompson hasn’t selected a safety in the first round in nine drafts with the Packers, and the franchise has taken only one in the first round since the draft started in 1936, there are a couple of reasons to think Thompson has to consider the possibility this year. Namely, the position is making a comeback in the NFL and was a weak link on the Packers’ No. 25-ranked defense last season.

Foremost, the NFL has started valuing safeties more in the past year or two as spread offenses have become the norm. Through most of the free agent era, it has been undervalued, which still is reflected in its franchise tag value, which was third lowest of all positions and ahead of only tight end and kicking specialists.

But in a sign of changing times just this week, Seattle safety Earl Thomas signed a four-year contract extension that averages $10 million and included $27.7 million in guaranteed pay. Earlier in free agency, Jairus Byrd signed a six-year deal with New Orleans that averages $9 million a season. Those contracts are on par with some of the highest-paid cornerbacks.

Top cornerbacks in 2014 NFL Draft

• RISING STOCK: Ohio State’s Bradley Roby had a bad 2013 season, but when scouts went back to his 2012 videotape, they saw a dominating player who could end up a first-round pick.

• FALLING STOCK: Florida’s Marcus Roberson came into the offseason looking like a high-round pick but concerns about his speed — his 4.64-second 40 at the combine was slow for a cornerback — drew him more scrutiny and damaged his prospects.

• SLEEPER: Northwest Missouri’s Brandon Dixon played at the Division II level, but he’s a physical press corner who has the combination of size (5-111/2, 203) and speed (4.43-second 40 at the combine) that man-to-man oriented teams are looking for.

Top safeties in 2014 NFL Draft

Safeties’ value have grown because the position requires a wide and contradictory skill set that includes being fast and agile enough to cover receivers one-on-one occasionally against spread passing sets; having the size to match up with the increasing number of playmaking tight ends; tackling well in the open field as the last line of the defense; and playing physically in the run game near the line of scrimmage.

Players who can do all or even most of those are rare. It’s worth noting that the Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season on the strength of their top-rated defense for points and yards allowed, and while they had talent at many positions, their strongest was safety, where Thomas and Kam Chancellor are the NFL’s best tandem.

“Everybody runs spread concepts (on offense),” an NFL scout said last week, “and it puts a lot of pressure on those safeties, because they’re in space. If you can’t play in space and tackle, you’re going to have some issues back there.”

Then there’s the Packers’ need at safety, which is acute after a 2013 season in which their safety play was among the league’s worst.

None of the Packers’ safeties had an interception or forced a fumble in 2013. Morgan Burnett didn’t play up to the five-year, $27 million contract he signed last July, and M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian failed in their shots as the starter opposite him.

The latter two now are gone. Thompson cut McMillian, a fourth-round pick in 2012, last December in a rare in-season jettison of a player who was getting on the field regularly. McMillian signed a reserve-future contract with Kansas City in January. Then this offseason, Thompson let Jennings walk without a fight — the former undrafted rookie signed a one-year minimum contract with Chicago.

The best option on the roster to start opposite Burnett is cornerback Micah Hyde, who will work at safety at least part time this offseason. The Packers are hoping he might be the answer after showing promise as a ball hawk and tackler playing slot cornerback last season as a rookie. They also have third-year pro Sean Richardson, who returned late last season from neck fusion surgery, and Chris Banjo, a core special teams player as a rookie last year.

Regardless of what the Packers think of Hyde’s chances of making the position change, Thompson has to give defensive coordinator Dom Capers better options than last year. Thompson almost has to draft a safety in the early rounds to give himself a fallback as a starter and protection against injury.

If Thompson picks a safety at No. 21, he will be projecting that player as an immediate starter, and if he takes one that high it almost surely will be either Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama or Calvin Pryor of Louisville. They are the only likely first-round safeties and could be gone by 21, though that’s far from a sure thing. The teams in the market for a starting safety and picking ahead of the Packers are Detroit at No. 10, St. Louis at No. 13, Chicago at No. 14 and Baltimore at No. 17.

Clinton-Dix appears to be the better bet to go first, though some teams like Pryor better. Both are junior entries in the draft.

“When you go top 20, you’re projecting that guy as being a difference maker, and I don’t think either one of those guys are,” said a scout with an NFC team. “Pryor is more of a tone setter for you. I’d love to have him on my team. He’s (a butt) kicker. If you’re just going to get in a fight with the other team, you want him on your team. He’s that kind of guy. There’s no disputing that Pryor and HaHa are the two guys. To me, it’s what flavor do you like? They’re just different guys.”

Both can play free or strong safety, though Clinton-Dix leans more to the former and Pryor to the latter.

Clinton-Dix started the two seasons on an Alabama defense that was the best in college football over that span. He has good size for the position (6-feet-138, 208 pounds), good instincts and intelligence, better than average ball skills (seven interceptions in two seasons as a starter) and good short-area quickness as an open-field tackler.

However, he doesn’t have top-flight speed and athleticism for a first-round pick. His 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine was 4.59 seconds, which is about on par with the top safety drafted last year, Kenny Vaccaro (4.62 seconds), who went No. 15 overall. But it was slower than the two other first-round safeties in ’13, No. 18 pick Eric Reid (4.51 seconds) and No. 32 Matt Elam (4.47 seconds).

Clinton-Dix’s 40 also was considerably slower than former Packers safety Nick Collins (4.36 seconds), the Pro Bowl player Thompson has unsuccessfully been trying to replace since Collins’ career ended because of a neck injury in Week 2 of the 2011 season.

“There’s something about (Clinton-Dix) that bothers me,” another scout for an NFC team said. “I’m not a big fan. I know he’s the No. 1 guy on a lot of people’s list, but I’m not a huge fan. It’s hard to tell you exactly why, it’s just that he picks and chooses (when to tackle).

“He’s a smart football player, and down there with Nick (Saban, Alabama’s coach) I think he’s kind of reached his ceiling, I don’t think he’s going to get any better than he is. He’s more a product of his environment than he is an absolute good football player. He’s a second-round guy in last year’s draft at best.”

Pryor is fearless and a big-time striker who plays all out all the time. He’s not a burner (4.62-second 40) but has plenty of range because of his instincts. Some scouts question whether he’s enough of a quick-twitch athlete and good enough in man-to-man coverage to justify taking in the first round.

“(Pryor) is just a dog, he just blows you up,” another scout said. “That’s all he knows, he doesn’t know any other way. He’s on all the time. I think it’s fun to watch. You couple that with some talent.

“He’s a little stiff, yes. At Louisville they never play man to man, it’s zone almost 99.9 percent of the time, so you never really see him in a man-to-man situation. That’s going to be something for him matching up with guys, because he is a little stiff. But I think he can be a free safety type guy, he has range and he sees the ball OK.”

In the second round, the most likely prospects are Washington State’s Deone Bucannon and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward. Bucannon is a big safety (6-1, 211) who hits hard and has some ball-hawk abilities (15 career interceptions) but is a straight-line player who misses way too many tackles for some scouts.

Ward is on the small and wiry side (5-1058, 183) but has a cornerback background and excels in coverage, which is becoming more and more important at safety.

— Pdougher@pressgazette media.com and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.

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