TundraVision: A Tale of Two Safeties

Calvin Pryor was supposed to be the hard-hitting downhill prospect. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was second-best , just a cover guy who would struggle to start his rookie year. Halfway through the season, its pretty clear which safety is coming out on top.

Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix by Mike DiNovo—USA TODAY Sports.

Green Bay Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix by Mike DiNovo—USA TODAY Sports.

On May 8, 2014, there probably wan't anyone happier with the Green Bay Packers' selection in the first round of the NFL Draft than yours truly. After all, no one had been petitioning Ted Thompson and Co. for a true visionary free safety for as long or as consistently as I have. 

So, when Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was selected by the Packers at pick No. 21, my longtime wish for that Eugene Robinson-esque safety came true. As is the case with me, though, I was immediately hit with a case of buyer's remorse. Did I press too hard for this kid? Why did he drop so far in the draft? Is he not going to be physical enough, or is he just not going to develop fast enough?

I remembered the flack I took (and sometimes still take) when I petitioned hard for the Packers to take A.J. Hawk with pick No. 5 in the 2006 Draft. Of the remaining top-tier picks (Vernon Davis and Michael Huff), I felt he had the highest "floor". He was the least likely to be the Big Bust that the Packers could affordn't to take. In the end, I was probably correct: Davis almost crashed-and-burned, and Huff did. But my constant petitioning for Hawk and the subsequent "Wasn't TundraVision the guy who kept hawking for Hawk?" made me hedge my bets on Clinton-Dix's immediate impact his rookie year.

The start of the regular season did very little to reassure me. In Week 1, Clinton-Dix gave up an easy touchdown to Seattle's Rocardo Lockette by firmly cementing his cleats into the ground when he should have made the tackle. Already, the boo-birds were out in full force on Twitter: "Why did we waste a pick on this kid? We could have had [insert rookie with a good first game here] instead!"

The biggest contrast was, of course, the "other safety" in that draft: Calvin Pryor, the hard-hitting safety from Louisville that many felt was the better overall prospect. When he was selected by the Jets at No. 18, many observers thought that Clinton-Dix was the leftover that we had to take. Second-best.  The "Poor-man's Calvin Pryor."

And in Week 2, Jets coach Rex Ryan didn't hold back one bit in making sure, leading up to the game, the he believed he had the better safety.

“Both guys were excellent players. We would have been happy with either guy, said Rex Ryan.  "But I took the guy who will knock your face in.”

This set off a little war of words between Ryan and Clinton-Dix, a line in the sand for a young rookie to prove himself against in just his second game, not even as a starter.  When asked, Pryor himself underhandedly joined in the criticism of Clinton-Dix as the softer of the two safeties.

“When you look at it and compare us, our games are totally different,” Pryor said. “He’s more of a rangy, cover guy, where I am more of a downhill, being aggressive guy. So we are two totally different players and people, but he’s a good friend of mine, and I respect him on and off the field.”

While he promised a hard-nosed, hard-hitting game in response to Ryan's criticism, Clinton-Dix's impact on the game was pretty non-descript.  He had no glaring mistakes, but no big impact plays, either. More importantly, however, was the guy we weren't focusing on: Calvin Pryor.

In that game, Aaron Rodgers pitched the ball to Jordy Nelson down the right sideline after he beat cornerback Dee Millner's coverage. Pryor's responsibility was deep coverage on that play, and he made the move to intercept Nelson on the play. However, he angle he took was so poor, a junior high coach would have stood there with mouth agape. Instead of taking the route that would have taken him to where Nelson would be, he instead ran directly towards Nelson, while he was still twenty yards away from him. 

Nelson made the catch, juked Pryor out of his jock strap, and ran the ball in 80 yards for what ended up being the decisive touchdown in that game. Sure, Clinton-Dix may have had a non-impact on that game, but Pryor—the guy so highly touted as the better choice over Ha Ha—was a negative impact in that game.

Since that day, Clinton-Dix has done nothing but grow and establish himself not only as a guy who can make a positive impact on a game, but after only half a season has earned a starting spot as the Packers' best safety. Interestingly enough, you know that "rangy, cover guy" that Pryor tried to describe a few months ago? Clinton-Dix has actually played the Pryor role better than Pryor, combining good angles with some of the hardest hits our defense has seen this year. No, maybe not Chuck Cecil-esque hits, but in the end, do you really want wind-up-and-deliver crushing blows at the risk of leaving teammates exposed in coverage?

Yes, Ha Ha returned to earth in the last game against the Saints, when he looked like a raw rookie once again, whiffing on tackles and playing out of place on several occasions. The other shoe, of course, is that all ten of the other defensive players pretty much looked like raw rookies, so its hard to fault him for what looked like a bad day overall for the Green and Gold.

But while we've lived the ups-and-downs of a rookie with high hopes, we might not have noticed what's happened over in Jets Territory since that fateful meeting in Week 2. In fact, if there's a better sports analogy to Doctor Evil stealing Austin Powers' mojo, I don't know what is.

While Clinton-Dix has turned into the hard-hitting, downhill hitter than no one expected him to be, Calvin Pryor has quietly been a bust in his first season. Despite all the hype and bluster from his coach and the New York media, Pryor was benched last week after just one series: apparently, not good enough to play on one of the worst secondaries in the NFL. On the season, Pryor has just one pass defensed (and no interceptions), and that was from Week 1.  And suddenly, Rex Ryan, who was so arrogantly touting Pryor as the better option over Clinton-Dix not all that long ago, is singing a completely different tune.

"You know, it probably started with that first game where we dropped that pick six," Ryan said. "But he hasn't had the impact necessarily that I think all of us had expected. But quite honestly, we haven't done a whole lot of -- you know, our defense has been played a little differently than maybe we anticipated. So I think we had to make some of those adjustments along the way."

One of those adjustments being, of course, benching him.

One would be remiss to not recall the draft-day drop of Aaron Rodgers, how he would inevitably be compared to overall top pick Alex Smith for years. Rodgers took some time, but nowadays there isn't a soul that would have taken Smith over Rodgers if they could do it all over again. And the Packers are far better off as a result of what has to be considered a draft day bust on the part of the 49ers.

And eight games is far too short of a time to ask for a jury on Clinton-Dix and Pryor, but the preliminary reports would indicate that the Packers got lucky once again, and a really good player fell into their laps, all because another team took a chance on the guy who was supposed to be the "better option."

The best part is that Clinton-Dix is playing like LeRoy Butler, the rangy strong safety-type who can play close to the line and help out in run defense. Let's be honest. You don't get Eugene Robinson's field vision and quarterbacking-of-the-defense skills in your rookie year. Heck, it took Nick Collins four full seasons before he blossomed into one of the league's truly best visionary free safeties. It takes time and experience.

And let it be said, the two Super Bowls won by the Packers since the Lombardi Era have featured two very savvy free safeties in the lineup. You don't win a Super Bowl lacking at that position.

The best part is that with Clinton-Dix playing and making an impact in a strong safety role in his rookie year just gives him more and more snaps at the NFL level to grow and evolve into that complete free safety he's going to be someday, and I'm willing to wager it isn't going to take four seasons like it did for Collins. The Packers may not win a Super Bowl this season, but if Clinton-Dix develops into the player I dreamed he would be when he was drafted last May, the chances of another Super Bowl trophy ending up in the Hall of Fame might just come within Aaron Rodgers' present contract.

As you can tell, I'm done hedging my bets. The Packers made the right pick, and we have Calvin Pryor and the Jets to thank for it.

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C.D. Angeli is a longtime Packer fan and feature writer for Cheesehead TV. You can listen to him as the co-host of Cheesehead Radio on Thursday nights, and he plays the good cop over at PackersTalk.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TundraVision, and look for him at Lambeau Field wearing his #21 jersey.

 

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Comments (9)

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DaTomkat's picture

November 09, 2014 at 10:50 am

COW, I have to admit you come up with some great stuff every now and then, but to say rookie Clinton-Dix is probably the best defensive player the Pack has ?? I guess everyone is entitled to their own opinion- its just that yours was stupid. My 1st. choice was C.J. Mosley, after he was gone, HA-HA was the man.

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DaTomkat's picture

November 09, 2014 at 07:05 pm

Wow Cow !! Now you really got me thinking. After a couple cocktails and a little snooze (so I can stay awake for the big GAME tonight) ,all I can say is" YOU DA MAN" !! Keep up the good work. By the way, I stuck- up for you the other day. A couple guys said " you weren"t fit to eat with the pigs", and I said "He sure is", So now you know, I got your back !! Anyhow, Salt & Pepper are still the best on "D", but Dom has to be more creative with these 2 guys !!! Clay in the middle more often & Peppers down & dirty a little bit more. Pin their ears back (not just in passing situations) & turn them loose. We can't do any worse against the RUN than we already are. Last place is hard to top.

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Tanner's picture

November 09, 2014 at 09:18 am

I don't watch enough of the Jets to know how Pryor is playing, and I'm guessing neither do you. But Pro Football Focus has Pryor at a +2.6 and Ha Ha at a -1.1. So they would obviously disagree with your analysis.

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tundravision's picture

November 09, 2014 at 09:36 am

Pro Football Focus doesn't bench players mid-game. Coaches do.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

November 09, 2014 at 10:27 am

Some of the Pro Football Focus ratings are total nonsense.

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Lphill's picture

November 09, 2014 at 10:07 am

We don't need pro football focus we have COW to make judgement from half a season . What COW is saying is that Ha Ha is just a guy is all .

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lucky953's picture

November 09, 2014 at 10:52 am

Too early to tell. Your degree of certainty does not match up with the reality of pro football.

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jeremyjjbrown's picture

November 09, 2014 at 10:53 am

What about reality in general?

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lucky953's picture

November 09, 2014 at 10:41 am

Good article. He's exceeded my expectations as a first-year safety and he's going to get better. Personally, I was hoping for a miracle: CJ Mosely dropping, but GB really needed a solid safety.

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