GREEN BAY – Dark moments.
That’s what Ted Thompson called them last week, and as the Green Bay Packers general manager sat in the team’s draft room Thursday night, watching the 2014 NFL Draft play out in high definition on a television nearby, he was starting to have a lot of them.
Waiting for his turn to come at No. 21, Thompson’s 10th draft was not unfolding as he’d hoped. In a four-pick span, he’d watched three defensive players he certainly could have used on his roster disappear before his very eyes.
At No. 15, Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier went to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
At No. 17, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley went to the Baltimore Ravens.
And at No. 18, Louisville safety Calvin Pryor went to the New York Jets.
Suddenly, with two more picks to go before he went on the clock, Thompson was concerned. Only one name remained out of a foursome of potential defensive playmakers: Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
“You have your dark moments during the draft when they call out names that you wish they didn’t call out,” Thompson had said in his pre-draft press briefing a week earlier. “[But] even during the draft itself, sometimes if we need to pat ourselves on the back, we’ll repeat it. ‘Let’s just take the best player. Let’s just take the best player.’ I have people remind me and whisper in my ear.”
In the end, Thompson was able to do that – and fill arguably the team’s most glaring need, the safety position.
After the Miami Dolphins took Tennessee tackle Ja’Wuan James at No. 19, the New Orleans Saints traded up with the Arizona Cardinals to No. 20 – as it turned out, not to get ahead of the Packers, but to get ahead of wide receiver-needy Philadelphia at No. 22 and Kansas City at No. 23 to take Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks 20th.
Once the Saints acquired the Cardinals’ pick, it was relatively clear that Clinton-Dix would be there for the Packers’ taking, as New Orleans had drafted Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro in the first round last year and signed ex-Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd to a six-year, $54 million deal in free agency, meaning they clearly weren’t in the safety market.
Although Thompson hinted that he got calls for possibly trading the pick, the Packers had their card turned in with Clinton-Dix’s name on it long before their 10-minute window had closed.
“It fit very well for us,” Thompson replied when asked if Clinton-Dix’s selection was a marriage of the best player available and filling a need. (Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who ended up going 24th to Cincinnati, was also available.)
“At the start of the draft, there are a lot good players that come off. But when it came time for our pick, we felt like he was the best player on the board and the most skilled – and at the same time, we were looking to maybe add a safety if we could.”
Asked if he thought Clinton-Dix would still be there at No. 21 after Shazier, Mosley and Pryor came off the board, Thompson replied, “We try not to anticipate too much of anything because you wind up with a broken heart, but ... we thought there was a chance, yeah.”
In all, four safeties went in the first round, and the Packers might’ve lost out on Clinton-Dix had the Cardinals not gotten that offer they couldn’t refuse from New Orleans – with only six picks entering the draft, Arizona GM Steve Keim jumped at the chance to add the Saints’ third-round pick (No. 91 overall) to move back to No. 27. There, he took Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, and Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward then went 30th to the San Francisco 49ers.
Had Thompson traded back with, say, Cleveland to No. 26 so the Browns could take quarterback Johnny Manziel – the Browns ended up swinging a deal with the Philadelphia Eagles to obtain the 22nd pick – he still would have had Bucannon and Ward on the board if he were interested. But given what Thompson said after the pick, Clinton-Dix was a better fit in his mind for what the Packers want at safety.
“I think he’s a real all-purpose kind of safety. 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,” Thompson said. “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.”
And those things were lacking at the position last season, when the Packers were the only team in the league not to get at least one interception from their safeties. Starter Morgan Burnett, who signed a four-year, $24.75 million extension before the 2013 season, didn’t play the way the team had hoped, and while M.D. Jennings wound up starting all 17 games, the Packers tried Chris Banjo, Jerron McMillian and Sean Richardson at the position as well. McMillian, a 2012 fourth-round pick, played himself right onto the waiver wire, while the team was so unimpressed with Jennings that he didn’t receive a qualifying restricted free-agent offer and joined the Chicago Bears. At the NFL Meetings in March, coach Mike McCarthy suggested cornerback Micah Hyde would be given a chance to win the safety job alongside Burnett.
Instead, the Packers get an athletic player from a big-time football program who already knows how to be a pro and showed a varied skill set from his sophomore and junior seasons at Alabama.
“Ha Ha's a fantastic player because he has great range, he's got really good ball skills, he's very instinctive, he's a bright guy, can make all the calls in the secondary, make all the adjustments, really has a good understanding of football,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said on ESPN’s pre-draft coverage Thursday night. “I think Ha Ha's going to have a fantastic NFL career.
“Guys that can support the run outside and be a good tackler is very, very important. He also has really good ball skills, can play man-to-man ... [He has] three critical factors for DBs: Can judge the ball and play it in the deep part of the field, can play a little man-to-man, and be a good tackler and that keeps you from giving up big plays."
Clinton-Dix, 21, was a two-year starter for the Crimson Tide, but he played mostly deep as a sophomore in 2012 before Saban utilized him in more varied ways last year.
“As a sophomore, I was a young’un, we had won the championship the year before, so (Saban) wanted to put me in a place where he thought I was comfortable at and he could sleep at night with me there, so my sophomore year he had me just playing a lot of the deep middle, covering a lot in the slot and boundary, stuff like that,” Clinton-Dix explained during a conference call with reporters at Lambeau Field after the selection. “So that's what I did my sophomore year.
"And then going into my junior year, he felt real comfortable with me, he wanted me to run all the plays, all the calls, all the checks, and be able to play fast and still do my job, so he felt comfortable (putting me) anywhere, lined up anywhere, left and right, put me in the box, and shoved me around a lot, used me a lot my junior year.”
In that role, the 6-foot-1 3/8, 208-pound Clinton-Dix finished last season with 52 tackles, six pass breakups and two interceptions after registering 37 tackles, nine pass breakups and five INTs in 14 games as a sophomore in 2012. He only ran his 40-yard dash in 4.62 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February, but the Packers were unconcerned about his playing speed.
“It’s not our time,” Thompson said of the 4.62. “He plays the game well.”
The Packers didn’t bring Clinton-Dix in for a pre-draft visit, and safeties coach Darren Perry said his only exposure to Clinton-Dix was the team’s 15-minute interview with him and watching tape of him in draft preparation. While Clinton-Dix will have to earn his starting spot, Perry indicated that he should not only elevate the play of the defense as a whole, but Burnett’s as well.
“He's got the versatility you're looking for. He can play the deep zone, near the line of scrimmage, he's tough, he's plenty of smart. His football IQ is where you like it to be with a guy you take at this position,” Perry explained.
“In this system, we like to have some versatility at that position in terms of guys being able to play near the line of scrimmage and guys being able to play the deep part of the zone. You like his physical-ness, you like his size, the kid can run, he can tackle. Again, he'll be a guy that will be expected to play near the line of scrimmage and the deep part of the field as well.
“He's a really good football player and fun to watch. I think he's going to help this defense.”
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today,” and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.