GREEN BAY, Wis. — It was no secret entering this year’s NFL Draft that the Green Bay Packers needed a safety. When that position was addressed immediately in the first round with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, even the former Alabama star admitted he had recognized — with some help from his Instagram and Twitter followers — that there would be a great opportunity at a starting job waiting for him in the land of green and gold.
"I kind of went back and looked at Green Bay (before the draft) and (thought), ‘You know, they could use some help (at safety and) on the defensive side of the ball, period, with the great offense they already have,’" Clinton-Dix said. "So I looked there, and I was like, ‘Well, everybody might be right. I might end up in Green Bay. Seriously.’
"Everything happens for a reason."
The questions now aren’t about his chances to start as a rookie. Unless Clinton-Dix has a very poor showing over the next three months, he should be starting next to Morgan Burnett when the Packers travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks in the NFL season opener. Micah Hyde’s positional adjustment is still in the early stages of development, and the only other competition for Clinton-Dix to be on the field for the first defensive snap of the season are Sean Richardson (undrafted in 2012), Chris Banjo (undrafted in 2013) and undrafted rookies Tanner Miller and Charles Clay.
"They brought me here for a reason," Clinton-Dix said during rookie orientation. "I love to play safety. I’m here. I’m ready for it."
Clinton-Dix has the talent and major college experience to transition well to the NFL. Green Bay has to hope, though, that he’s the right fit next to Burnett.
Last season, Burnett was given the unenviable task of teaming up with Jerron McMillian and M.D. Jennings at safety. The proof of just how difficult that assignment was for Burnett can be summed up quickly by noting that McMillian — a fourth-round pick in 2012 — was released midway through his second NFL season, and Jennings wasn’t given a restricted free-agent tender and was allowed to leave for the Chicago Bears on a one-year, minimum-dollars contract.
There were a lot of issues with the Packers’ safety play in 2013. The problem that can be best supported by statistics is the well-known fact that Green Bay’s safeties failed to record a single interception or forced fumble all season.
"No, that didn’t alarm me," general manager Ted Thompson said of those stats.
Thompson may be alone in that, not to mention that his selection of Clinton-Dix in the first round may be an "actions speak louder than words" type of situation.
Clinton-Dix, a rangy, centerfield-type safety, should be a great help to Burnett and to the Packers’ defense as a whole that desperately needed a player with his skill set.
"I think he’s a real all-purpose kind of safety," Thompson said of Clinton-Dix. "He’s shown an ability to cover down in the slot, he’s good in support; physical player. Also can play well in the back end."
Versatility is a quality that head coach Mike McCarthy was looking for this offseason from Green Bay’s players on defense. Clinton-Dix offers that, which should help the Packers play to Burnett’s strengths as well.
"Morgan, he was kind of forced into that role as a strong safety (last season)," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "(Burnett) has the ability to play both near the line of scrimmage and in the deep zones, so we feel good about that."
No matter where Burnett and Clinton-Dix line up on the field, unless injuries hit, it will likely be the two of them manning the position in 2014 and beyond. But with offseason training activities (OTAs) and training camp still to come, McCarthy isn’t ready to anoint Clinton-Dix as a guaranteed, full-time starter yet.
"I don’t have any slotted ideas that he’s going to play this position and this many snaps," McCarthy said. "I think his transition here will be pretty seamless, but he needs to come in and compete with the guys that are already here."
McCarthy stated during rookie orientation that Clinton-Dix was "off to a good start." For that good start to blossom into a good rookie season, Perry said "a lot of that’s going to depend on Ha Ha and how hard he’s willing to work, and we feel good about his work ethic."
Clinton-Dix wouldn’t specifically acknowledge the increased pressure that comes with being a first-round pick, but there’s no getting around how important he will be to Green Bay’s defense. If Clinton-Dix isn’t ready to contribute at a high level yet, it will adversely affect Burnett and many other aspects of the Packers’ quest to turn around their defense.
"We have to be better," Perry said of the safeties. "We weren’t good enough, and that starts right here with me, that starts with our coaching staff, and we recognize that. We don’t shy away from that. It’s going to be a great challenge, and we will be better, no question in my mind."