"We're going to be a better defense this year. You can write that in big letters."
That's how Green Bay Packers head coach Mike McCarthy started the last press conference of the 2014 draft weekend. And to be honest, Green Bay's defense couldn't get much worse than it was in 2013. After finishing in the top eight in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted rankings in three of the last four seasons, the defense run by Dom Capers fell down an elevator shaft last season, ranking 31st overall (only the Chargers were worse) and barely resembling the unit that had been so dominant before. An inconsistent pass rush didn't help -- especially when Clay Matthews missed five games with a thumb injury -- and the defensive front was rather porous against the ground game, allowing 4.67 running back yards per carry and often failing in crucial situations.
But it was the secondary that really set this team back, and that story starts with the safeties. M.D. Jennings and Morgan Burnett were the primary culprits in the NFL's only secondary featuring no safety interceptions. And for every big play they prevented, the Packers' safeties seemed to allow about 10. Jennings, who started all 17 games at free safety, seemed particularly out of place, allowing touchdowns and other major plays on all manner of routes. The Packers passed on tendering the restricted free agent, and Jennings moved on to the Bears -- where he'll actually improve their safety tandem. Burnett was better than he played last season; he was dealing with a hamstring injury that cost him the first month of the 2013 campaign, but results are what they are.
When the draft came around, general manager Ted Thompson had several options with the 21st overall pick. It was thought that Green Bay might go with a speed linebacker, or a tight end, or a receiver, but when their pick came around, Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was the easy pick. Thought by many to be the best safety in the draft (though Louisville's Calvin Pryor was the first at the position taken off the board, by the Jets with the 18th pick), Clinton-Dix amassed 59 solo tackles, seven interceptions and 15 passes defensed in three seasons with the Crimson Tide, and two as a primary starter.
As I noted in his SI.com pre-draft profile, Clinton-Dix has the two things every NFL free safety needs -- great feet and impressive quickness. He backpedals and redirects smoothly and with little trouble, which allows him to stick and stay on all kinds of routes. And he's remarkably quick when it comes to driving down in run support and moving to either sideline. He gives maximum effort on every play, and though he will occasionally whiff on tackles, an inevitable result of his breakneck style, he's never really out of position. Most importantly -- and here's where he perfectly fits the paradigm of the modern elite safety -- Clinton-Dix does all of this from every part of the field. From deep single coverage to two-deep, half-field responsibility, to the slot, to the box and when blitzing, Clinton-Dix can do it all at a plus-level.
"I think he's a real all-purpose safety," Thompson said after the Packers selected him. "He's shown the ability to cover down in the slot, he's good in [run] support, a physical player. He can play well on the backend, and he's got very, very good ball skills. All three of those things are things we look for in our safeties. When it came time for our pick, we felt like he was the best player on the board -- the most solid and the most skilled."
Clinton-Dix certainly doesn't lack confidence, nor should he.
"I'm a great player. I play fast, I'm a great tackler," Clinton-Dix told the Green Bay media. "And it's like anything, once I learn the system, learn the entire defense and get comfortable, I think I'll be fine."
Based on the tape, he should be a marked improvement over what the Packers put on the field in 2013.
Perhaps Clinton-Dix's most obvious positive attribute is his closing speed in run support. Even from deep coverage, he can fly down and make consistent tackles. This is a hallmark of a Nick Saban defense (Saban 101 is run support from off-coverage of any kind), and in the Crimson Tide's 49-42 win over Texas A&M last Sept. 14, Clinton-Dix was flying all over the place. What I like even more about Clinton-Dix's play is that he's always aggressive in the passing game, and this tackle of A&M receiver Mike Evans was a great example. Clinton-Dix originally took slot coverage as Johnny Manziel rolled to his right and Evans headed straight downfield. Clinton-Dix isn't even on the screen when Evans catches the ball, but no matter. He may have saved a touchdown here.
Last year, Green Bay's safeties were often torched when asked to cover angle routes of any kind. Not only does Clinton-Dix have the footwork and agility to trail such routes, he can do so estimably in the slot. This play with 13:00 left in the third quarter ended with safety Vinnie Sunseri running a Manziel interception 77 yards for a touchdown, but the pick was a tip drill. Watch how Clinton Dix's coverage of running back Ben Malena takes one shorter route out of the playbook. Malena gets a jump on him at the turn, but Clinton-Dix's recovery speed takes over quickly.
If Clinton-Dix has one area of improvement, it's in his deep coverage, and that's more a schematic issue than anything else. He was often tasked to read run in Saban's defense, which left pockets open for quarterbacks to exploit. If the Packers ask him to stay put in a two-deep shell, or retain him as the last line of defense, I think that will pay dividends. Still, there are times when he got owned by bigger receivers deep, and that's certainly an issue worth fixing in the NFC North, where he'll be dealing with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Calvin Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson. Here's a deep prayer from Manziel to Evans late in the A&M game, in which Clinton-Dix mistimes the jump. A&M is down by 14 points with 40 seconds left in the game, which means that Alabama's safeties are going to play deep. And given the pressure he was under, it's a minor miracle that Manziel was able to get the ball off at all.
Clinton-Dix was set up as the deep defender more in 2012, when he had an SEC-leading five picks -- so again, this is a matter of scheme and reps than anything else.
"My sophomore year, I was asked to pretty much play the middle of the field a lot," he said at the scouting combine. You know, make sure I was the deepest guy. The last guy to be making the tackle and whatnot. But this year I was able to more involved in the run and being in the box. So I think that was the difference."
The difference is also in the subtleties of deep coverage, specifically Clinton-Dix's ability to time jumps and retain coverage all the way down a deep route. He clearly has the raw speed to be a great defender on deep seam and sideline routes, but because Saban's system doesn't really put defenders in position to backpedal, it may take Clinton-Dix a while to grasp the finer points when it comes to this part of the game. It's important especially because he's now part of a team that's expected to put up some serious points, and that puts his new defense in position to defend more passes. In 2013, the Packers saw 539 passing attempts against them, ninth-most in the league -- and that was with Aaron Rodgers out for seven games.
It's something you can expect NFL quarterbacks to exploit -- will Clinton-Dix be overly vulnerable to play-action because he's been trained to read run so often? Will he maintain coverage discipline? I think he will over time, and what's more, I think Ha Ha Clinton-Dix could be the springboard to a much-improved Packers defense in 2014.