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Packers select Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in first round

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) poses for photos after being selected 21st overall pick in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft to the Green Bay Packers at Radio City Music Hall. (Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports)

By Tom Oates

The Wisconsin State Journal

GREEN BAY — Seldom during the Green Bay Packers’ recent run of success has the roster felt so needy.

Inside linebacker, free safety, tight end, wide receiver, center and kick returner all qualified as legitimate needs for the Packers when the NFL draft kicked off Thursday night.

But some of the Packers’ needs were more immediate than others, and not even general manager Ted Thompson, a devotee of taking the best player available, could ignore the fact Green Bay’s defense needed help.

Lots of help.

High-end, early-in-the-draft help.

Thompson’s uncharacteristic foray into free agency, a move that netted pass-rushing defensive end Julius Peppers, was only a good first step for Green Bay’s defensive recovery. Much more was needed to fill all the holes in coordinator Dom Capers’ unit, which really hasn’t been the same since the Packers won the Super Bowl in the 2010 season.

Fortunately for Thompson, this year’s draft offered up some high-quality players at the Packers’ positions of greatest need.

The draft was considered one of the strongest ever and most scouts saw 15 to 20 impact players in the first round — plus four quarterbacks who had a chance to go early.

The likelihood of a defensive playmaker still being on the board when the Packers picked at No. 21 in the first round seemed high. And with inside linebackers Ryan Shazier of Ohio State and C.J. Mosley of Alabama and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix of Alabama and Calvin Pryor of Louisville firmly in the Packers’ sights, it seemed Thompson might find himself in a situation where his draft board and the team’s needs intersected perfectly.

That’s exactly how it turned out for the Packers, but just barely.

The run on quarterbacks never materialized and, one by one, the Packers’ defensive targets came off the board.

Hearts had to fall in the draft room when Shazier and Mosley went at No. 15 to Pittsburgh and No. 17 to Baltimore, respectively. After the New York Jets scooped up Pryor with the 18th selection, the Packers had to endure two more picks before they had a shot at last to get a defensive player who could solve their acute need for playmakers in the secondary.

All’s well that ends well, however, and the Packers, after entertaining trade offers for the 21st pick, landed Clinton-Dix, adding a potential ballhawk to a safety position that had zero — yes, zero — interceptions in 17 games last season.

It was telling that Thompson, well-known as a hoarder of draft picks, rejected all offers for No. 21. That showed how much he wanted to add a playmaker to the defensive mix.

“It fit very well for us,” Thompson said. “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.”

Clinton-Dix was immediately given jersey No. 21 by the Packers, which perhaps was a nod to departed cornerback Charles Woodson, one of the best playmakers in franchise history.

More important, Clinton-Dix will add big-play potential at a position where the Packers have been lackluster since Nick Collins suffered a career-ending injury early in the 2011 season.

“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. ... We think he’s got very, very good ball skills.”

Clinton-Dix was a two-year starter at Alabama, intercepting seven passes. Scouts say he has good range, coverage skills and tackling ability, and rave about the great angles he takes to the ball.

More important, Clinton-Dix projects as a safety who can play the deep middle. He had five of his interceptions in 2012, when he was used mostly as a center fielder by the Crimson Tide.

Even though the Packers want their safeties to be interchangeable, the addition of Clinton-Dix will allow holdover Morgan Burnett to play closer to the line of scrimmage. At 6-foot-13/8, he will also give the Packers someone to match up with the tall receivers employed by NFC North Division rivals Chicago and Detroit.

“He’s got the versatility that you look for in the safety position,” safeties coach Darren Perry said. “He can play in the deep zone, play at the line of scrimmage.”

Some scouts have questioned Clinton-Dix’s athletic ability after he was only average in the physical testing at the combine. However, Thompson said his combine time in the 40 — a so-so 4.58 seconds — wasn’t accurate, that the Packers had a better time on him.

Not that it mattered.

“I think it was his play on the football field that opened our eyes,” Perry said.

If Clinton-Dix can keep playing that way, the safety position might not be the black hole it has been for the Packers.

“We have to be better,” Perry admitted. “We weren’t good enough.”

The addition of Clinton-Dix gives the position — and the defense — a chance to be good enough next season.

--- ( c) 2014, The Wisconsin State Journal/Distributed by MCT Information Services