GREEN BAY – How do you tell a guy you don’t think he’s worth top dollar without telling him to his face?
You do what the Green Bay Packers have done with safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
You don’t say anything.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow that a five-year starter who has played 99 percent of the defensive snaps over the past four seasons isn’t drawing much interest from his own team five months before becoming an unrestricted free agent.
It’s why Clinton-Dix reiterated before the bye week comments he had made earlier to the Wisconsin State Journal that he doesn’t expect to be back in a Packers uniform next season. There aren’t many other conclusions a guy who sees himself as an upper-echelon player can make.
He has seen others such as quarterback Aaron Rodgers, receiver Davante Adams, center Corey Linsley, tackle David Bakhtiari and end Mike Daniels get rewarded with lucrative contract extensions before they hit free agency.
So why wouldn’t they invest in a former first-round pick with one Pro Bowl selection and 11 interceptions — a league-high among NFL safeties since 2016?
The truth is that Clinton-Dix had a lousy year in 2017. He missed too many tackles (around 10), was part of too many long completions (around 10) and finished the year on a particularly sour note when he appeared not to sell out on a pair of tackles in the season finale at Detroit.
In the NFL, what you put on film is what talent evaluators see and off what they base their financial assessment. They may cut you a break if you had four great years and one bad one, but smart teams read all the fine print before handing over big money.
The Packers decided not to invest in Clinton-Dix coming off last season’s performance. They could have gambled that he was the victim of an overall lousy defense or they could have used the tired and ridiculous excuse that he was played too deep in Dom Capers’ system to have an impact.
(You wonder what Seattle’s Earl Thomas might have to say about that after making a career of playing deep center field for the Seahawks).
But they decided they needed to see more before even thinking about signing him to a long-term deal.
This logic is hard for Clinton-Dix to comprehend.
In a recent interview in which Clinton-Dix was willing to discuss openly his play this season and his impending free agency, he made the case that the Packers had every reason to bet on him given his pedigree (top high school safety in the nation, one of the top safeties in the 2014 draft, a Pro Bowl selection).
Even if 2017 wasn’t the season he planned on having, he has been a fixture in the starting lineup, has missed only a handful of snaps in five seasons and has 14 interceptions and more than 400 tackles during his career.
In his mind, that’s enough for the Packers to pay to keep him around.
The reality — and something Clinton-Dix claimed he understood — is that teams invest in the surest things. And they try to do it at a price that fits their view of the current market. That’s the business part of the game.
For every Rodgers, Bakhtiari, Adams, Linsley and Daniels the Packers have shelled out money to before their contracts expired, there are plenty they decided to wait on and let the market determine their value. In some cases, they negotiated and found the player’s price too high, so they decided to wait until March to make a final decision.
But in some cases, they just passed, figuring they would see how the season played out.
All Clinton-Dix need do is ask Randall Cobb or Sam Shields or Bryan Bulaga or Mason Crosby or Nick Perry or A.J. Hawk or Chad Clifton to find out how long the Packers can keep a guy waiting. All of them went to the brink of free agency before signing lucrative contracts.
It’s possible Clinton-Dix will follow in the footsteps of Micah Hyde, Casey Hayward, Morgan Burnett and James Jones, all of whom are examples of players who moved on after the Packers decided they weren’t going to pay them. Things turned out well for all four of those players even if their preference, like Clinton-Dix’s, was to stay with the Packers.
If Clinton-Dix wants to be around next year, then he must prove himself all over again. He’s almost two years removed from the Pro Bowl season and general manager Brian Gutekunst undoubtedly wants to see if he fits into new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine’s system.
Clinton-Dix got off to a poor start to the season and even though he has three interceptions his number of missed tackles (five) and full or partial responsibility on touchdown passes (three) is too high.
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In discussing the touchdown passes, all of which took place in the red zone, Clinton-Dix said there were factors that those who don’t know the details of Pettine’s defense might not understand. Pettine has not blamed Clinton-Dix solely on any of the three touchdowns and said before the San Francisco game that the staff was working to erase some of the confusion that has been occurring in the red zone.
Near the end of the interview, Clinton-Dix said his focus was just on having fun this season and letting the chips fall where they may. That is easier said than done when you’ve made it clear you’re frustrated with the way the team is handling your impending free agency.
But the way he played in the 33-30 victory over San Francisco was a step in the right direction. He did not give up any long completions, forced a fumble that the Packers recovered, saved a touchdown with an open-field tackle of running back Raheem Mostert and put a hit on quarterback C.J. Beathard on his ill-fated fourth-quarter throw that cornerback Kevin King picked off.
He missed one tackle.
More of those types of games are going to make the Packers feel better about offering him a long-term deal. Starting with the Los Angeles Rams after the bye week, the Packers are going to be facing some high-powered offenses, and if Clinton-Dix is the player he thinks he is, he’ll need to be mistake-free.
The temptation will be for him to go after interceptions to pad his numbers and boost his chances of a big contract, but if he wants to stick around Green Bay, he must show Gutekunst he’s reliable, steady and capable of making a play when it’s there.
Maybe someone else will pay him when free agency rolls around. Maybe he’ll be disappointed with the league’s assessment of him.
Either way, it’s his job to get it done on the field and someone else’s to judge how much his play is worth. Nowhere does it say that loyalty or appreciation must be taken into consideration. If Clinton-Dix wants to get paid, he’s going to have to earn it in the remaining months of this season.
Even then, there’s no guarantee that money is coming from the Packers.