Chris Banjo let himself be envious. Yes, he had seen Deone Bucannon play from afar, but after being asked about Bucannon’s spot in the Arizona Cardinals’ defense, he wondered what it would be like to play such a role.
“As a safety, it would be pretty cool,” said Banjo. “I mean, I would like to play bigger sometimes like that.”
At 5-foot-10, 207 pounds, Banjo is no slouch. A regular special-teamer and backup at safety for the Green Bay Packers for parts of the last three seasons, Banjo is 3 inches shorter than Bucannon but just 1 pound less. While both played safety in college, Bucannon’s NFL career quickly took on a most unexpected twist.
“When we drafted him, we thought we had a big safety who could handle tight ends and be a run stuffer,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said in a conference call. “Out of necessity, he started playing the dime linebacker for us and played it so well we just made a dollar linebacker out of him the whole time. He gives us such great flexibility with his speed on the field and his range. He loves to hit, so get him closer to the box.”
As the Packers prepare to play at Arizona this Sunday, Bucannon, in his second season, is coming off arguably the highlight game of his career. In a 40-17 win at Philadelphia, he posted 11 tackles, one pass defended and a 39-yard interception return for a touchdown, earning him NFC Defensive Player of the Week honors.
Bucannon and Packers starting safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix were part of a 2014 NFL Draft that saw a fast and furious run late in the first round on talented safety prospects. After Calvin Pryor went No. 18 overall to the New York Jets, the Packers were lucky to see their biggest need combine with their best player available philosophy to nab Clinton-Dix at No. 21. They could have just as easily taken Bucannon to add some much-needed juice to their secondary.
But, as it turned out, Bucannon went six picks later to the Cardinals. Jimmie Ward went to the San Francisco 49ers at No. 30 and Bradley Roby, who had safety potential but now mainly serves as the Denver Broncos’ nickel back, finished it off at No. 31 overall.
Roby has the most turnover plays of the bunch thus far — a combination of 10 interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries — but Clinton-Dix (24 starts) and Bucannon (23 starts) have played the most snaps. Only two other defensive backs in the 2014 Draft — cornerbacks Kyle Fuller of the Chicago Bears at No. 14 overall and Bashaud Breeland of the Washington Redskins at No. 102 overall — have started more games.
After losing Nick Collins to a career-ending neck injury in 2011 and releasing Charles Woodson following the 2012 season, Clinton-Dix was just what the Packers needed at the safety alongside Morgan Burnett after trying to make it work for a season with M.D. Jennings. Clinton-Dix took his rookie lumps in 2014 but is progressing as history would suggest for top safeties in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ system.
“I think Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has made that jump you look for in second-year players,” said Packers coach Mike McCarthy. “We’ve had them throughout our time here and he’s a classic example of that, not only with his performance on the field but with his maturity and his personality and his toughness and his love for football. It’s felt throughout our locker room. He’s made the jump. He’s exactly what you’re looking for in a second-year player.”
While Clinton-Dix is developing as maybe the best all-around safety from the 2014 draft, Bucannon’s path has been paved by a skill-set and mentality that few his size possess. Banjo compared Bucannon’s role and playing style to that of Kam Chancellor’s for the Seattle Seahawks. But Chancellor is 6-foot-3, 232 pounds. Bucannon is 6-foot-1, 208 pounds. And yet, Bucannon still lines up as a linebacker — stance and all — on just about every snap. The other Cardinals’ inside linebackers on the active roster average 241 pounds.
In the Cardinals’ aggressive scheme, Bucannon has the ability to blitz (two sacks this season), fill a hole (97 tackles, according to the league’s statistical database) and make an impact as a tackler (11 tackles for losses, which are fourth in the league not counting front-line defenders). Perhaps his biggest advantage, however, is that he can cover better than a typical inside linebacker. His pick-six last Sunday night was a great example of how he worked in tandem with linebacker Kevin Minter to force the Eagles’ Sam Bradford into a bad throw and then showed his athleticism on the way to the end zone.
Clinton-Dix, with exactly the same measurements as Bucannon, has certainly had his opportunities around the line of scrimmage to make plays, as well. He might be the best blitzer in the Packers’ secondary and leads the team in tackles (92). More than anything, however, Clinton-Dix is playing much faster than he did a season ago, even when he misses a tackle or makes a mistake.
“It’s all about being confident and trusting,” said Clinton-Dix. “This year I felt like I was a lot more ready and lot more comfortable and, you know, I’ve just got to be consistent. That’s the most important thing. Once you get comfortable, you’re going to make a lot more plays.”
Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer has noticed.
“He really looks like a different player this year,” said Palmer in his conference call. “Really you don’t see a weakness in his game and I think he’s gotten a lot better since last year.”
Clinton-Dix’s range in the deep secondary is where he might have had an edge on Bucannon coming into the draft (see his diving interception against the Detroit Lions at Lambeau Field as an example). But now that is really a moot point with Bucannon playing a different position, “The Dollar” or “Moneybacker” as some have called it.
By either name, the Packers will know where to find him.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a safety anymore. He’s an inside linebacker wearing a (defensive back’s) number,” said Banjo. “To have a guy that’s skillful as a DB in terms of moving in space and running with faster guys on the field and everything, I think it’s really beneficial for a defense.”
Matt Tevsh has covered the Packers since 1996. E-mail him at email@example.com