Clinton-Dix ready to show his physical side
The New York Jets couldn't go wrong with the No. 18 pick. At least, that's how Rex Ryan felt as the seconds ticked down during May's NFL draft.
In need of a safety, the Jets and their sixth-year head coach had the pick of the two top prospects at the position in Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Louisville's Calvin Pryor.
The tiebreaker, in Ryan's mind, was hitting, which is why the Jets went with the 5-foot-11, 207-pound Pryor. Three picks later, the Green Bay Packers drafted the Clinton-Dix to help solve their own safety conundrum.
"Both guys were excellent players. We would have been happy with either guy. But I took the guy who will knock your face in," Ryan said in a conference call with Green Bay media Wednesday. The two will square off Sunday when the Jets travel to Lambeau Field.
Clinton-Dix took Ryan's assessment in stride. He doesn't argue with Pryor's physicality. Whether it was at Port St. Joe (Fla.) High School or the University of Louisville, Pryor's willingness to put a lick on an opposing player is well-documented.
Considered the most explosive hitter among the draft's safeties, the main criticism of Pryor by many scouts was he played too recklessly at times.
However, Clinton-Dix didn't get this far without knowing how to hit and there's a reason he didn't last long after Pryor came off the board. Once rated by Rivals as the top recruit in the entire state of Florida in 2011, many draftniks tabbed Clinton-Dix the draft's top safety based on his size, speed and range.
The Packers like what they've seen so far. Although Micah Hyde is listed as the starting safety opposite Morgan Burnett, Clinton-Dix played 40 defensive snaps last Thursday against Seattle. His five tackles and a sack are evidence he's not afraid to mix it up.
"I'm not afraid to do that at all, and you're going to continue to see that out of me," Clinton-Dix said. "If that's what they thought, then hey, that's up on him, and I'm going to show him."
The mistake many make when comparing Clinton-Dix and Pryor is thinking the link between the two safeties first began in the lead up to this year's draft. Actually, the two Floridians grew up 5½ hours from each other and were members of the same 2011 college recruiting class.
Clinton-Dix, from Orlando, was rated as the top safety in the state and the No. 7 recruit in the nation regardless of position. Pryor was greeted with a little less acclaim playing at Port St. Joe's, but still was considered the 88th best recruit out of Florida that year and the No. 31 safety.
Their teams never played each other, but their paths often crossed on all-state ballots and all-star invites.
"It's always been a battle between us two from high school to college to now," Clinton-Dix said. "We talk still now. I'm happy for him. He's happy for me and we're just going to go out and do the best we can do."
The best the Packers could hope for is immediate production from a first-round pick. It's something the organization has struggled to get in recent years, but Clinton-Dix could change that trend. It's been hard not to notice him.
Near the end of camp, Clinton-Dix picked off three passes in the span of a week. During his timeshare with Hyde on Thursday, he showcased his range in closing the gap and nearly picking off a deep pass from Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson intended for Doug Baldwin shortly before halftime.
The rookie also was alert in picking up the only turnover the Packers forced against Seattle off an Earl Thomas muffed punt in the first quarter.
"He's going to bring a physical presence I think in terms of the tackling," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "There were a few plays I'm sure that he would like to have back. But that's part of being a rookie and you work your way through those. But I think it's a good start. I'm certainly glad we've got him."
It was Clinton-Dix himself who levied the harshest criticism of his pro debut. Days removed from the 36-16 loss, he wasn't pleased with a missed tackle on Ricardo Lockette's 33-yard touchdown in the second quarter. As the last line of defense, Clinton-Dix whiffed on his attempt to take down the receiver.
His teammates view it as nothing more than rookie mistakes. After all, he wasn't alone. Ten players missed tackles against Seattle and six missed at least two, according to Pro Football Focus.
You also could make an argument Clinton-Dix showed more flashes of play-making ability in his first NFL game than M.D. Jennings or Jerron McMillian displayed all of last season. His ability to roam centerfield and drop down for support against the run is the versatility Capers values in his defense.
"He can come down there and hit," Hyde said. "You can put him in the box, he can make the tackles. We all had a rough day tackling. I think that's evident. He's a very good tackler, and the next couple days will show it; next couple games will show it."
In New York, the Jets are in the same boat with Pryor. In Sunday's 19-14 win over Oakland, the rookie had three tackles and two pass breakups in 51 snaps. Quarterback Geno Smith noticed that those early successes have bred confidence in Pryor.
The two safeties know their NFL careers always will be linked. For now, the best Clinton-Dix can do is to outshine Pryor on Sunday — and show the coach who passed on him that he's not afraid to lay a hit.
"You're going to see it, week in and week out," said Clinton-Dix of his hitting. "As I get my chance to come up and make those big hits, it will happen. That time will come."
— email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @WesHod.
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