Pressure Player

A lot is riding on first-round pick HaHa Clinton-Dix to help restore a defense that has lost its way. He's obviously improved the defense, but can he improve the defense enough to make the Packers a legit championship contender again?

From one perspective, the bar has been set low for HaHa Clinton-Dix.

After all, he's only replacing M.D. Jennings.

From another perspective, the bar has been set impossibly high. The Packers have given him jersey No. 21. That was last worn by some guy named Woodson.

Good luck, kid.

"They picked it for me," he said during a conference call on Thursday night. "You know, it's a good number to have, so I'm going to wear it with pride."

For a team that has gone from Super Bowl champion and 15-1 in back-to-back seasons to little more than a fringe contender by last season, the Packers are going to need Clinton-Dix to perform a lot more like the brilliant Woodson than the forgettable Jennings.

At 6-foot-1 3/8, Clinton-Dix has great size in a division with Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffrey and a bunch of talented tight ends. And he's closer to a total package than the other first-round safeties -- Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Washington State's Deone Bucannon are better in the box; Northern Illinois' Jimmie Ward is better playing deep.

"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," safeties coach Darren Perry said. "You like his physicalness, you like his size. The kid can run, he can tackle. 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."

The Packers' safety play last season was abysmal, with Morgan Burnett, Jennings and the others combining for zero interceptions and zero fumbles. That was a dubious first in the long history of the franchise.

From that vantage point, there's nowhere to go but up. That's not the point, though. Clinton-Dix has to be good. Really good. And he has to be really good now, no matter how much everyone will try to diminish the expectations on a rookie.

He'll need to get up to speed quickly to eliminate the mental breakdowns that lead to big plays that lose games.

He'll need to make the easy plays and the big plays that win games.

He'll need to help Burnett elevate his level of play after it appeared the musical chairs of ineptitude -- which pigeon-holed Burnett into an in-the-box safety -- led to some of his struggles.

Is he up to the challenge?

"I'm a great player," Clinton-Dix said. "I play fast, I'm a great tackler. And it's like anything, once I learn the system, learn the entire defense and get comfortable, I think I'll be fine."

Will it be so easy? Will the new No. 21 have anywhere near the impact of the old No. 36?

Athletically, there are questions. Clinton-Dix ran his 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds with a 33-inch vertical leap. In tandem, that made him the worst prospect among the 15 safeties who have a chance of going in the first five rounds. Of course, no games in September or January have ever been won during the Underwear Olympics contested at the Scouting Combine every February.

"I don't put a whole lot of stock into numbers, so to speak," Perry said. "Obviously, he's got first-round talent. We didn't see any limitations in his physical ability. But more importantly, it was his play on the football field that opened our eyes, because I think that's what you have to refer to when it's all said and done, is what did he do on the football field when he puts the pads on?"

When he was wearing the pads, he had a terrific sophomore season in 2012 with five interceptions and one forced fumble. As a junior in 2013, however, he had two interceptions and no forced fumbles.

And the recent draft history of Alabama's first-round defensive backs leaves plenty to be desired. Safety Mark Barron has been mediocre; cornerbacks Dee Milliner and Dre Kirkpatrick have been worse. It's the blessing and curse of a Nick Saban-coached team. He's a brilliant coach who has gotten his players to reach their peak output. Once in the NFL, there's not much room for growth.

"We think he has very good upside," general manager Ted Thompson said to counter that argument.

If Thompson is right, the Packers are fringe contenders no more.


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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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