GREEN BAY, Wis. — This is not a joke, Packers fans: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is headed to Green Bay after being selected with the No. 21 pick in the first round.
Safety was the Packers’ biggest need heading into the draft, and Clinton-Dix was the best one in this year’s class. While general manager Ted Thompson subscribes to the "best player available" motto and insists he doesn’t draft for need, he was able to achieve both by selecting Clinton-Dix.
"When it came time for our pick, we felt like he was the best player on the board and the most skilled," Thompson said. "And, at the same time, we were looking to maybe add a safety if we could."
Clinton-Dix was projected to be long gone before No. 21 in most mock drafts. But when Louisville safety Calvin Pryor was taken by the New York Jets with the 18th pick, it opened up the possibility that Clinton-Dix could be available for Green Bay. And, fortunately for the Packers secondary, he was still on the board.
"We try not to anticipate too much of anything because you wind up with a broken heart, but we thought there was a chance (Clinton-Dix would be there)," Thompson said.
Green Bay’s safety play was abysmal last season, with the entire group failing to record a single interception. Morgan Burnett struggled after getting a four-year contract extension and he certainly wasn’t helped by having to play next to M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian — both of whom are no longer with the team.
Clinton-Dix is an instant upgrade, and he’s not afraid to say so himself.
"I’m a great player," Clinton-Dix said in a phone conference. "I play fast, I’m a great tackler. Once I learn the system and get comfortable, I think I’ll be fine."
At 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds, Clinton-Dix does just about everything well on the field. While his best trait is playing a deep centerfield where he can show off his range, Clinton-Dix is also good in run support and displayed solid recognition in coverage. His production (seven interceptions, 10 pass deflections and one forced fumble in three seasons) doesn’t quite match his level of play on film, but winning two National Championships at Alabama shows that he’s able to handle a big stage.
As a sophomore, Clinton-Dix mostly played free safety, a spot where he thrived. As a junior, Clinton-Dix was asked to play in a wider range of defensive situations, including some strong safety, and his overall play dipped a bit.
"I think he’s a real all-purpose kind of safety," Thompson said. "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. I think, like Coach (Nick) Saban said at the start of the broadcast, we think he’s got very, very good ball skills, and all three of those things are things that we look for in a safety."
As an early entrant who never took a redshirt year, Clinton-Dix is only 21 years old and doesn’t turn 22 until December.
"We think he has very good upside," Thompson said. "He’s had great coaching. We feel like this is a really good football player and we felt fortunate that he was there available."
Four safeties were drafted in the first round, proving that NFL teams recognize it’s a position that can’t be ill-prepared. The Packers thought they could get away with below-average safety play in 2013, opting not to draft a safety last year despite it being the team’s biggest need even then. That backfired, and Green Bay wasn’t willing to risk that again.
"I think it’s the most important position on the field," safeties coach Darren Perry said.
Perhaps that’s just positional bias by Perry, but the Packers can now continue through the final six rounds of the draft knowing that they’ve not only addressed their biggest need, but they did so by bringing in this year’s best safety.
With Clinton-Dix in tow, this was a great opening night for Green Bay.