Alright with that out of the way, we often hear about how some positions are more “primed” for a successful rookie season than others. Quarterbacks is often cited as the position with the hardest transition between college and the pros likely because college football has a more diluted pool of talent and a wider array of “gimmicky” schemes that often just don’t work in the NFL (see: Wildcat offense). Wide receiver and offensive linemen are another two positions often cited as having slow progression, again likely because the NFL route tree is considerably more complex and refined than in college and the same can be said about protection schemes and the wider array of pass rushing options professional teams use. On the other hand running backs and cornerbacks are said to be some of the quickest positions where teams see positive production; the Packers enjoyed perhaps one of the finest rookies seasons out of Eddie Lacy last year on his way to the rookie of the year awards likely in part due to the fact that running the football has a lot of innate talent involved. Both running backs and cornerbacks also likely rely more on physical traits than the other positions and as a result also have some of the lowest career averages of any position. But what about safeties? On one hand, safeties do rely on their speed and agility much in the same way a cornerback does because often times safeties and cornerbacks switch roles. On the other hand, safeties are responsible for a lot more than just covering a man or a zone; they have to be able to read offenses and routes, fill in gaps and provide run support and in the Packers 3-4 scheme are also responsible for calling the majority of the assignments in the defensive secondary. So which one is it? Will the Packers be getting an instant rush of success and production out of Clinton-Dix or will he require a season or two to really come into his own?
Below is a list looking at every defensive back drafted primarily as a safety in the 1st round from 2013 to 2008. Unfortunately, safety was not considered a premium position up until very recently so there isn’t much point in looking much further than that. I’ve included their rookie season grade from ProFootballFocus, and statistics including interceptions, sacks and solo tackles.
As you can see, 1st round safety play in their rookie year is a little bit of a mixed bag. On one hand several safeties have contributed significantly right out of the gate; the Kansas City Chiefs were correct in drafting Eric Berry 5th overall and Harrison Smith also did a remarkable job as a rookie. However Mark Barron and Matt Elam prove that just being drafted in the 1st round doesn’t guarantee success; Barron fell into a pretty good defensive secondary but still struggled mightily his rookie season while Matt Elam was just one factor in a pretty dismal Ravens defense last season. Overall, rookie 1st round safeties grade out at around a 4.0, which would put them about 20th in the league. Compare that to Eddie Lacy grading out at 15.2, good for 5th among running backs and you can see that there’s likely going to be a learning curve involved. Other than that 1st round rookies don’t really get involved in rushing the passer but do record on average 2 interceptions and about 66 solo tackles.
However, 20th in the league would still be a vast improvement over what the Packers fielded last year; Morgan Burnett, the presumed starter alongside Clinton-Dix graded out at -4.8 (63rd in the league) while recording no interceptions. Even worse all the other safeties placed along side Burnett (mostly Jeron McMillian, MD Jennings, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo) fared even more poorly; combined they would have ranked around 70th in the league and again didn’t record an interception. Interestingly, all the other Packers safeties did combine for an astonishing 102 tackles, good for 2nd in the league; either this means Burnett played more free safety while the other safety played more strong safety, or the cornerbacks did a very terrible job last year and as a result the safeties had to make a lot of tackles to compensate. Either way, even a completely average season by Clinton-Dix would be a complete reversal of fortunes from the safety squad and hopefully Burnett and Clinton-Dix can play off each other and help both of their grades. While college and the pro games are markedly different, Clinton-Dix did record a fairly average NFL season last year at Alabama, so if he can just maintain his previous production he will be just about where he should be.
I think its important to note that safeties need time to develop; Nick Collins didn’t really come into his own until his 2nd or 3rd season and Packers fans are still waiting for everything to click for Morgan Burnett. What this really means is that Clinton-Dix is unlikely going to be the savior of the defensive secondary right away, give him some time.——————
Thomas Hobbes is a staff writer for Jersey Al’s AllGreenBayPackers.com.