Alabama free safety Haha Clinton-Dix poses for photos after being selected by the Green Bay Packers as the 21st pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft on Thursday in New York. / AP
The Green Bay Packers’ three-year search to replace injured safety Nick Collins might finally be over.
With Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix still on the board in the first round at No. 21 Thursday night, Packers general manager Ted Thompson had no choice but to grab him.
The Packers’ defense hasn’t been the same since Collins, a three-time Pro Bowl player, suffered a career-ending neck injury in September 2011.
Thompson has had little success shoring up that gaping hole in the defense opposite starter Morgan Burnett.
Thompson swung and missed badly in the fourth round in 2012 when he drafted Jerron McMillian, who lasted little more than a year on the Packers’ roster.
Undrafted safety M.D. Jennings wasn’t the answer either, which left the Packers’ defense extremely vulnerable.
The primary reason the Packers failed to advance deep in the playoffs the past three years has been because of the defense.
While there’s plenty of blame to go around, the safety position ranks at or near the top of the list for the defense’s struggles.
So after failing to draft or sign a safety last year in the hopes that McMillian or Jennings would develop into a playmaker, Thompson needed to take corrective action.
The Packers won’t say it, but Clinton-Dix will be penciled in as the preferred starter this season and brings size, athleticism and versatility to the position.
He becomes just the second safety in Packers history to be drafted in the first round. The other was George Teague in 1993, who like Clinton-Dix hails from the University of Alabama.
But the Packers are hoping the similarities end there. Teague lasted just three seasons in Green Bay, while the Packers believe Clinton-Dix could be a long-term answer.
“He’s going to be a rookie, he’s going to have to learn the ropes,” Thompson said cautiously. “He’s gonna have to do all the things that rookies do and take coaching and get ready to play, and I’m sure he’s preparing to do all that. He comes from a program where they know how to practice and they know how to prepare and they know how to play games.”
Clinton-Dix’s winning pedigree at Alabama can’t hurt. The Packers drafted running back Eddie Lacy in the second round last year out of Alabama, and he emerged as the NFL offensive rookie of the year.
“We had good success with a Crimson Tide we took last year, and we feel like this is a really good football player,” Thompson said. “And we felt fortunate that he was there (and) available.”
Clinton-Dix was the second of four safeties taken in the first round, with Louisville’s Calvin Pryor taken by the New York Jets at No. 18.
Some analysts ranked Clinton-Dix among the top 15 players in this draft, so it’s no wonder Thompson was smiling after the pick.
The Packers never had a chance to address their other glaring need on defense, at inside linebacker, because Ryan Shazier was taken by Pittsburgh at No. 15 and C.J. Mosley went to Baltimore at No. 17.
Clinton-Dix said he had a good meeting with Packers staffers at the combine. “That 15-minute meeting went very fast,” he said. “It was quick and I felt relaxed.”
Clinton-Dix was issued No. 21, last worn by defensive back Charles Woodson, who helped the Packers win a Super Bowl three years ago.
“I didn’t pick it at all,” Clinton-Dix said. “They picked it for me. You know it's a good number to have so I'm going to wear it with pride.”
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