Clinton-Dix rewarding Packers' patience
The New York Jets went with Calvin Pryor because Rex Ryan wanted the guy "who will knock your face in."
Fair enough. Going into May's draft, no one disputed the Louisville safety's hard-hitting credentials.
So with Pryor and the top two inside linebacker prospects off the board at No. 21, the decision was simplified for the Green Bay Packers on draft day with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix still available. They needed help at safety. This was their ticket.
The common thought was the Packers would toss Clinton-Dix directly into the starting lineup like the Jets did with Pryor, especially with how Green Bay has struggled on the back end, but the organization and its coaching staff had other plans.
Instead of putting it all on Clinton-Dix's shoulders, they doubled-down and also converted second-year defensive back Micah Hyde to the position, multiplying their options next to Morgan Burnett.
In a move made to not overwhelm the rookie, Clinton-Dix spelled Hyde for the first 1½ months of the season before graduating to the starting lineup against Carolina in Week 7. Since then, the Alabama rookie has played in all but 12 defensive snaps.
Things haven't gone quite as smooth for Pryor, who started the first four games before being benched. In May, Ryan was raving about Pryor's upside. In October, he said the rookie hadn't lived up to expectations.
With four regular-season games remaining, Clinton-Dix is second on the team with 72 tackles. It's early, but the rangy rookie appears to be a long-term answer at a position howling for stability.
"It's hard to say how a guy's going to respond until he's under the bright lights and the pressure's on in the regular season," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. "So we were fortunate to where we could gradually take a look at Ha Ha, where he didn't have it all on his shoulders to start out with.
"With Ha Ha we just felt that Micah was a guy we'd watched as a rookie, had some experience and gave us the ability the kind of bring Ha Ha along slowly, and I think basically you saw him earn the reps that he's getting now. He's played some real good football for us."
There's pressure on draft-and-develop franchises like Green Bay to get early production out of first- and second-year players since you're not augmenting the roster with free agents. They also place a premium on not rushing players.
The classic example is Aaron Rodgers and his three-year internship behind Brett Favre, but others like Hyde, receivers Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb, and defensive lineman Mike Daniels all crawled for a season or two before running into larger roles.
On occasion, injury have necessitated the immediate insertion of rookies. David Bakhtiari stepped in for Bryan Bulaga at left tackle last season and Corey Linsley took over for an injured JC Tretter at center a week before the start of this season.
The general philosophy has been to practice patience with young players. Second-round rookie Davante Adams had been quite for a few weeks before registering his first career 100-yard game in a 26-21 win over England.
While quick maturation is needed to survive during the era of instant gratification, the Packers keep their priorities in perspective. No two player's development is the same.
"A, you build a roster and B, you develop it and then C, you prepare to win games – I really don't get too far away from that" Packers coach Mike McCarthy said.
"There's a difference between developing your roster and getting ready to win games. We prepare players and the players we feel give us the best chance to win on Sunday is really the line that separates the difference between developing and trying to win."
Pryor, who didn't even see a defensive snap a few weeks ago against Pittsburgh, was back in the starting lineup in Sunday's 30-24 loss to Minnesota, but didn't record any statistics. He's played roughly 60 percent of their defensive snaps this year with 41 tackles and 1/2 sack.
With the Jets fallings to 2-11, chances are Pryor will be onto another coaching staff after the season. They'll try to restart after an up-and-down rookie year.
There's plenty of football left to play in Green Bay and Clinton-Dix figures to be critical to a postseason run. A week ago, the rookie safety made his presence felt late against Patriots with his ability to hang with New England's Rob Gronkowski in single coverage down the left sideline after pressing at the line of scrimmage.
The Packers haven't received Day 1 production from all of this year's draft picks. Defensive lineman Khyri Thornton (third round), linebacker Carl Bradford (fourth), cornerback Demetri Goodson (six) and receiver Jeff Janis (seventh) are either on injured reserve or have played sparingly.
However, Clinton-Dix (first), Adams (second), tight end Richard Rodgers (third) and Linsley (fifth) have become key contributors at positions that were question marks coming into the season.
A year after running back Eddie Lacy dropped to the Packers in the second round, the defense is enjoying its early run with another Alabama product, who fell directly into the team's secondary last May.
"He's been able to grasp what we're doing, been able to go out there and do some good things for us," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "Consistency is what we're striving for. He's working hard as all the guys out there on defense. You're seeing some chemistry start to develop and that's probably the big thing because you have to have that in the secondary."
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