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Battle No. 1: Hyde vs. Clinton-Dix
The safety play can’t possibly be worse than it was last year, can it?
Green Bay’s safety corps was the only one in the league that failed to record an interception last season, with one team (Jacksonville) having one, five others having two and the other 25 having three-plus. Twenty individual safeties had at least three interceptions. Moreover, only Green Bay, Cleveland and Indianapolis didn’t get a forced fumble from a safety. Thirty-two safeties around the league forced at least two, including former Packers star Charles Woodson, who forced three for Oakland.
Not surprisingly, the Packers overhauled the position during the offseason by giving impressive second-year defensive back Micah Hyde a shot at safety and selecting HaHa Clinton-Dix in the first round.
Throughout the offseason, it was Hyde — not Clinton-Dix — as the starting safety opposite Morgan Burnett. While common sense says it will be only a matter of time before Clinton-Dix jumps into the starting lineup, this might be a battle that lasts deep into training camp.
While Hyde played cornerback at Iowa, the NFL’s head scout, Dave-Te’ Thomas, listed Hyde as a safety for his pre-draft rankings in 2013. In fact, he had Hyde as the third-ranked free safety in last year’s class. Inserting him into this year’s class, Thomas had Hyde as the No. 2 free safety (with Clinton-Dix fourth) and the third-best safety overall (with Clinton-Dix fifth).
The Packers selected Hyde in the fifth round and kept him at cornerback, where he impressed at every turn. He started three games and was an asset at the nickel and dime positions. He played well in coverage and was fearless in run support. Numerous times during the offseason, coach Mike McCarthy called Hyde a “four-down player.”
His performance in 2013, coupled with the depth at cornerback and the lack of depth at safety, is why the coaching staff had Hyde lining up at safety in the spring.
“You saw Micah play very well for us at the dime position last year, he played a lot of nickel for us," defensive coordinator Dom Capers said. “We really didn’t feel that during the season it was fair to him to put him back at safety. There’s just so much there that you’ve got to learn. Now, for me to stand here and tell you exactly where he’s going to end up, I’m not sure. But we like his football ability and his playmaking ability. We’ll see how it works itself out. We think he’s another good football player, and you want to find packages where you can him on the field where he has a chance to make plays.”
Hyde joked that he’d put on weight to play on the defensive line if needed. There’s a kernel of truth to that statement, though. Like John Kuhn on offense or even Woodson, Hyde has that innate feel of the game that can’t be coached. It’s possible he starts at safety, then becomes the dime defensive back in passing situations, which would allow the coaches to ease Clinton-Dix’s path to the lineup.
“Even when I was little, I’ve always just been a football player," Hyde said. “I’ve never been the fastest, strongest, tallest. I was always just a football player, and I like it that way. I know if I go out there on Sundays or Mondays, whatever day it is, I’ll be prepared and just go out there and play football like I know how to.”
The Packers, of course, didn’t use the 21st overall selection on Clinton-Dix just to have him be a highly paid cheerleader. He will not, however, be forced into the lineup.
“He’s a talented player but he’s young. He still has a ways to go," Perry said. “You don’t want to get too excited now but you saw some things that you liked from him watching the tape. Again, he’s still learning and there’s still a thought process that he has to go through before he can let loose. Time will allow that to happen.”
One of the knocks on Clinton-Dix was his lack of elite speed. He ran his 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine in 4.58 seconds, which put him on the lower end of the safeties who were drafted in the first four rounds this year. (Hyde ran in 4.52 at the 2013 Combine.) Speed didn’t seem to be an issue during the offseason workouts, as Clinton-Dix showed the range to make plays on deep sideline routes.
“I would have no worries about his 40 time," Perry said. “We’ve seen him make some plays out of the half-field and out of the post that you got excited about and he would have laid the wood or made a play. Once you put the pads on, you can’t worry about what a guy runs. Some guys have game speed and some guys play faster and some guys read faster than others, and they get there a little bit quicker. His speed won’t be a concern.”
McCarthy was immediately impressed with his prized rookie.
“I thought HaHa came in and you could tell right away that he belongs,” he said on Friday. “I was impressed with his work in the spring.”
Given the gruesome play of the safeties last year, there is plenty of pressure on Clinton-Dix to be a solution. Clinton-Dix, however, was oblivious to the expectations.
“Not really. I’m competing for a job,” he said. “I’m willing to work hard and do whatever it takes to help out wherever I’m needed. I’m going to put in the work. As long as I do that, I’ll be fine.”
Battle No. 2: Richardson vs. Banjo
The Packers will keep four or five safeties, with Burnett, Clinton-Dix and Hyde locks to make the roster. The returning players are Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo, who couldn’t be any more different physically. While both have plenty of athleticism, Richardson is a towering 6-foot-2 while Banjo is just 5-foot-10.
Special teams, obviously, will be the key, since there isn’t much of an opening to earn playing time on defense — and neither seized control of their opportunities on defense, anyway. Banjo finished second on the team with 10 tackles on the kicking units while Richardson had four in his abbreviated six-game season following spinal-fusion surgery.
“Sean’s a guy that’s really going to show up in the pads. That’s his world,” McCarthy said. “He’s a physical guy and I would really like to see Sean make a bigger impact on special teams but he’s doing a heck of a job.”
They’ll be challenged by undrafted rookies Tanner Miller and Charles Clay. Miller was a three-year starter at Iowa with comparable athleticism to Clinton-Dix. He picked off three passes as a senior. Clay is an outstanding athlete who didn’t make much of an impact on defense at Hawaii but was a standout on special teams. Clay, who played receiver at SMU before heading to Hawaii, was signed after trying out at the rookie camp. Neither player will be overwhelmed by the playbook.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.