Two years ago, the Green Bay Packers needed to make a splash at safety.
While general manager Ted Thompson says he never drafts for need, his defense was begging for help on the back end. The secondary had suffered for the better part of three seasons after three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins sustained a career-ending neck injury in Carolina on Sept. 18, 2011.
The aftershock of his departure finally wore off during the 2014 offseason when the Packers moved Micah Hyde to safety and used their first-round pick on Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, an aggressive and instinctive safety who has oozed potential in his first two NFL seasons.
His selection came at a time when the defense desperately needed a difference-maker next to Morgan Burnett on the back end. The two have made for a solid pairing so far with Clinton-Dix recording 192 tackles, nine passes defensed and three interceptions in his first 32 regular-season games.
The third-year safety has been even more productive in the postseason with 20 tackles, seven passes defensed and three interceptions in four playoff appearances. He's only 23, and the Packers are hopeful his early success is only a small sampling of what’s to come.
“I think Ha Ha, each year you kind of want to single out a player who’s made a huge jump in his second year and he’s definitely the one this year,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said at the NFL owners meetings. “Ha Ha, I thought had a tremendous year. Morgan Burnett is really one of our stronger leaders on our football team, let alone the defense.”
Clinton-Dix’s dependability (36 consecutive starts including playoffs) is a welcome change after the defense cycled through M.D. Jennings (26 starts), Charlie Peprah (14 starts), Jerron McMillian (two starts) and even Charles Woodson (seven starts) trying to find a fit next to Burnett.
Clinton-Dix’s insertion seems to have brought out the best in Burnett, who’s playing perhaps his best position as an in-the-box safety. The seventh-year safety has recorded 198 tackles, three forced fumbles, 1½ sacks and an interception in 26 regular-season games over the past two seasons.
The Packers are perennially young on defense, but could be even more so in 2016 with linebacker Mike Neal’s future uncertain, nose tackle B.J. Raji taking at least a one-year hiatus from the game and cornerback Casey Hayward leaving for San Diego. It’ll be up to returning veterans to carry the leadership load.
That’s a role McCarthy believes Clinton-Dix is ready to handle.
“You look at your team, when you’re young you have to create opportunities for guys to step up and lead,” McCarthy said. “I think that’s where the void will be filled. I look for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and some of these guys to step up and take advantage of it. Mike Daniels will be more of a leader in that defensive line room.
“Once again, this is the opportunity for the young players to step up in that leadership role.”
Daniels, who received a four-year, $41 million extension in December, has praised Clinton-Dix and inside linebacker Sam Barrington in the past for bringing an edge to the defense. It took time for Clinton-Dix to find the right balance with his aggressiveness, but Green Bay feels he’s on the cusp of something special.
Clinton-Dix is only one piece of what the organization believes could be a top-of-the-line secondary. While they lost Hayward, the Packers like where they stand with Sam Shields, Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins at cornerback. Hyde, entering his fourth NFL season, has seen a lot of snaps in the slot of the nickel and dime subpackages, and has shown to be a capable safety when called upon.
As his familiarity grows in Dom Capers’ scheme, Clinton-Dix seems to be finding comfort in his role in the defense. The 6-foot-1, 208-pound safety cut down on his missed tackles last season and showed the ability to get after the quarterback when rushing off the edge.
The fact the Packers can use Clinton-Dix and Burnett interchangeably only adds to the strength of the position. With the NFL draft less than a month away, Thompson and his scouts again can rest easy with their holdings at safety.
That wasn’t always the case.
“I think he’s played at a very high level in a fairly exposed role,” Thompson said at the NFL scouting combine in February. “We’ve asked him to do a lot of different things like everybody else in the league in terms of their safety production. But we do ask him to do a lot of different things and I think he’s done a really good job.”