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Safety first: Packers address pressing need with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

May 9, 2014
 
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Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of the Alabama Crimson Tide / Getty Images

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix at a glance

Position: Safety.
School: Alabama.
Height, weight: 6-138, 208.
Highlights: Clinton-Dix fills a need at safety, a position that produced zero interceptions for the Packers last season. A two-year starter at Alabama, Clinton-Dix had seven interceptions and eight passes defended in 25 games over that span. Also had 3˝ tackles for a loss last season as a true junior. … He lacks elite athleticism. At the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.59 seconds. When asked if that was a concern, general manager Ted Thompson said, “It’s not our time.” He also had a 33-inch vertical and bench-pressed 225 pounds only 11 times, which aren’t impressive numbers for a first-round pick at his position. … His arm length is 3238 inches, he has 9-inch hands and a 78˝-inch wingspan. … Clinton-Dix earned first-team all-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America and the Sporting News. … He played in all 14 games, including 10 starts, when Alabama won the national championship following the 2012 season. That year, he had 37 tackles, four passes defended, five interceptions, and one forced fumble. He had interceptions in the SEC championship game victory over Georgia and the BCS national title game win over Notre Dame. … He was suspended for two games last season for taking a $500 loan from an assistant strength coach. … He had surgery on a meniscus tear last December but returned in time for Alabama’s bowl game.
Strengths: Good size and wing span. Quick to read and react. Enough speed and fluidity to keep pace with slot receivers or tight ends. Ranges off the hash. Good hands to intercept. Takes direct angles to the ball. Drops downhill urgently, runs the alley and does not shy from contact — wipes out ballcarriers. Secure tackler. Can break down and tackle in space. Has special teams experience. Well-coached in a pro-style defense.
Weaknesses: Has a narrow build and lacks ideal bulk — could stand to get stronger. Not an elite athlete — ordinary speed and leaping ability. Occasionally gets stuck on blocks. Could stand to iron out his pedal. Does not always play with abandon — plays conservatively at times and can be late fitting in the run game or getting off the hash. Average ball production and playmaking ability. Not as natural in the box. Was not an exceptional ballhawk or an intimidating eraser.
Noteworthy: His given name is Ha’Sean. The Orlando, Fla., native was nicknamed Ha Ha by his grandmother as a child. … He played running back as a freshman and sophomore at Edgewater (Fla.) High School before transferring to Dr. Phillips High School in Orlando, where he earned all-America status as a defensive back and kick returner. Was rated the nation’s best high school safety by Rivals.com and Scout.com, and was ranked second by ESPNU. … Will wear No. 21 in Green Bay.
Quotes: “I play fast. I’m a good tackler.” ... “They used me in a lot of different situations last year at Alabama.” ... “Pretty close to Eddie Lacy. Will be glad to be back with him in Green Bay.” ... “Very relaxed meeting with Packers at combine.” ... “I didn’t pick No. 21 to wear, they picked it for me. It’s a good number to have, will wear it with pride.” ... “Opinions on which teams needed a safety, I didn’t look at that at all.” ... “I’m very good covering, helping out.”
— Strengths and weaknesses from Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL Draft 2014 Preview.

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The NFL's first-round draft board nearly shut out the Green Bay Packers at the two positions they most needed immediate help.

Ryan Shazier, Ohio State's explosive inside linebacker, went to Pittsburgh at No. 15. Alabama's C.J. Mosley, another highly regarded inside linebacker, went two picks later to Baltimore, and one of the top two safeties, Louisville's Calvin Pryor, went to the New York Jets one pick after that, at No. 19 overall.

That left only one of the four preferred players at those two positions, Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, on the board when the Packers' turn came up at No. 21 overall.

And in a sign of how badly the Packers need a safety and the gap between Clinton-Dix and the next-rated safety and inside linebacker, general manager Ted Thompson refused to trade back after talking with what he said were a “number” of teams. He instead stood his ground at No. 21 and picked Clinton-Dix, who figures to be an immediate starter across from Morgan Burnett.

"It fit very well for us," Thompson said. "We feel good. At the start of the draft a lot of good players are coming off, but when it came time for our pick we felt like he was the best player on the board, the most solid and most skilled. And at the same time we were maybe looking to add a safety if we could."

Maybe looking for a safety is a major understatement. The Packers' safeties had no interceptions or forced fumbles last season, and the Packers in essence jettisoned the two players who played the most opposite Burnett: M.D. Jennings left as a free agent for a one-year minimum contract with Chicago, former fourth-round pick Jerron McMllian was cut in early December.

Inside linebacker was of similar need for the Packers, who were looking to get more dynamic in their back seven after finishing last season ranked No. 25 in the NFL in yards allowed and tied for No. 24 in points allowed. That position offered two high quality prospects in the first round, Shazier and Mosley. But both were gone by No. 21.

Other players on the board who might have interested the Packers were USC receiver Marqise Lee, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, and three defensive linemen: Notre Dame end Stephon Truitt, Minnesota end Ra'Shede Hageman and Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III.

Also on the board as possible late first-round or early second-round prospects were the next two safeties, Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward and Washington State's Deone Bucannon. Both ended up going later in the round, Bucannon at No. 27 to Arizona and Ward at No. 30 to San Francisco.

But Thompson must have seen too big a gap in need from safety to the other positions, and too great a difference in the safety grades from Clinton-Dix to either Ward or Bucannon to trade back with on one of them.

So now the Packers now have two big safeties to match up with the big receivers and receiving-oriented tight ends in the league. Just within their own NFC North Division, they face a Detroit Lions team that features 6-5 Calvin Johnson and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron, who was drafted earlier Thursday, and the Chicago Bears, who have one of the biggest tandem of receivers in the league in Brandon Marshall (6-4, 230) and Alshon Jeffrey (6-3, 216).

Burnett is listed at 6-feet-1 and 209 pounds; Clinton-Dix at the NFL scouting combine measured 6-1 3/8 and 208. Their similarities suggest the Packers can use them interchangeably if they want, with both able to play deep and near the line of scrimmage, though both naturally are more deep free-safety type players. That versatility could allow defensive coordinator Dom Capers to better disguise coverages and not have to worry about matchup differences at safety.

"I think (Clinton-Dix) is a real all-purpose kind of safety," Thompson said. "He's shown an ability to cover down in the slot, he's good in (run) support, a physical player, also can play well on the back end. I think like (Alabama) coach (Nick) Saban said at the start of the (draft) broadcast, we think he's got very, very good ball skills. All three of those things are things we look for in a safety."

Darren Perry, the Packers' safeties coach, said he had only one conversation with Clinton-Dix, at the NFL scouting combine.

"Our conversations had to come from me watching him on video," Perry said. "He's a really good football player and fun to watch. I think he's going to help this defense."

Clinton-Dix didn’t test particularly well for a first-round safety prospect – his 40 was 4.59 seconds, and he had a 33-inch vertical jump. He's entering the draft after his true junior season.

"I don't put a whole lot of stock into numbers, so to speak," Perry said. "Obviously he's got first-round talent. We didn't see any limitations in his physical ability. But more importantly it was his play on the football field that opened our eyes, because I think that's what you have to refer to when it's all said and done, is what did he do on the football field when he puts the pads on?"

Along with Clinton-Dix's versatility, the Packers said they liked his intelligence and ability to handle defensive calls and adjustments. Saban came up in coaching as a defensive backs coach, and in NFL circles Alabama's defensive backs are regarded as among the best coached college players in the country.

"If you know anything about Alabama, Nick Saban, he puts a lot of pressure on the secondary guys, particularly the safeties," Perry said. "They get challenged mentally, physically. When you play in a program like that you're going to get challenged. We spent a great deal of time talking with him. (Defensive coordinator Dom) Capers, (coach) Mike McCarthy, a lot of our personnel guys. We feel good about his football IQ, and then the training he's had coming from Alabama should help him in the NFL."

Clinton-Dix statistically had a better season in 2012 than last season (five interceptions to two) and said he was more strictly a coverage player that season. Last year he took on more responsibilities and played more near the line of scrimmage.

Perry said he didn't watch any of Clinton-Dix's 2012 videotape.

"Based on what I saw last year, this kid has enough ability to everything you want at the safety position," Perry said. "It's just a matter of him coming in and still growing, because he's still not there and has a ways to go. We'll help him get there."?

— Strengths and weaknesses from Nolan Nawrocki’s NFL Draft 2014 Preview.

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