HERE’S A CLUE
It’s Butler, in the War Room, with the 27th pick.
Green Bay — As the 2015 season neared its end, and the defense of the Green Bay Packers dragged the offense toward the finish line, there emerged a symbiotic relationship between starting safeties Morgan Burnett and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. The need for technical denominations — free safety and strong safety — vanished as defensive coordinator Dom Capers played the role of Eli Whitney with his interchangeable parts.
The coexistence was made possible by the rapid ascension of Clinton-Dix, a second-year player who endured a challenging rookie season that, for a firstround pick, was closer to flop than phenomenal. He missed a team-high 16 tackles in 2014 and was responsible for 81⁄ plays of 20 yards or more.
2 But with 2015 arrived maturity, controlled aggression and a cocksure approach to tackling that pleased coaches and fans alike. He whittled his missed tackles from 16 to nine. He allowed just three plays of 20 yards or more. He led the Packers in tackles (100) while playing a remarkable 99.8% of snaps.
“I think he’s played at a very high level in a fairly exposed role,” Packers general manager Ted Thompson said at the scouting combine. “We’ve asked him to do a lot of different things like everybody else in the league in terms of their safety production. But we do ask him to do a lot of different things, and I think he’s done a really good job.”
The high usage rates for Clinton-Dix, who missed only three snaps all year, and Burnett, who missed only seven snaps in the 13 games he played, was a byproduct of both terrific interplay and the seasonending neck injury to fellow safety Sean Richardson.
The Packers retained Richardson with a one-year, $2.55 million contract after he signed an offer sheet with the Oakland Raiders. At 6-foot-21⁄ and 216
2 pounds, Richardson offered a big-bodied option that blurred the lines of safety and linebacker. Capers even designed a special defensive package for the 2015 season that put Richardson on the field as a third safety.
But as Richardson’s year was cut short by injury, the Packers were left with only three available options: Burnett, Clinton-Dix and Chris Banjo, their special teams ace. Banjo played sparingly throughout the year and finished with 101 snaps from scrimmage, most of which coincided with Burnett’s absence early in the year.
With only three safeties on the roster, Thompson might be tempted to bolster a thin but reliable unit for the Packers. Perhaps he’d like to find the next Richardson, a big-hitting safety who can fill the box like a linebacker. Or perhaps he’d like to find an understudy for Burnett, who along with Sam Shields are the eldest members of the secondary, entering their eighth seasons in 2016.
“I think Ha Ha — each year you kind of want to single out a player who’s made a huge jump in his second year,” coach Mike McCarthy said at the scouting combine. “And he’s definitely the one this year.” 1. KARL JOSEPH West Virginia, 5-foot-10, 205 pounds Lowdown: Joseph missed the majority of his se- nior season after suffering a torn ACL in October, which also prevented him from participating in many of the drills at the combine. Started every game he played at West Virginia, bursting out of the gates with 104 tackles, including 7 tackles for loss, as a true freshman en route to freshman All-America honors. Developed nicely over the next three years. Had five interceptions through the first four games prior to the ACL injury as a senior. Team captain. Good ball skills, good coverage skills. Offers flexibility to play deep or in the box because of his tenacious physicality. Enjoys dishing out hits. Still recovering from torn ACL. Propensity to seek big hits can leave him out of position at times.
Projection: Second round 2. KEANU NEAL Florida, 6-0, 211, 4.62 seconds in the 40-yard dash Lowdown: Neal caught the attention of college coaches during his junior year at South Sumter High School in Bushnell, Fla. He made an eye-popping 151 tackles that season and added four interceptions and four forced fumbles. He played primarily on special teams during his freshman season at Florida and earned a starting role as a sophomore in 2014. Decent sophomore season (45 tackles, three interceptions) gave way to a stellar senior year that featured 96 tackles and a team-best 51 solo stops. Explosive athlete who accelerates quickly off the snap. Loves to unleash big hits. His 38-inch vertical leap tied for second-best among safeties at the combine. Can be reckless with his body. Misses tackles at times.
Projection: Second round 3. VONN BELL Ohio State, 5-11, 199, 4.51 Lowdown: Bell was a five-star recruit rated among the top-30 players in the country coming out of high school. He cut his teeth as backup at the nickel position during his true freshman season, appearing in 14 games and earning one start. He settled in at safety during his sophomore and junior years, starting 27 games over the last two seasons. Produced more as a sophomore (92 tackles, six interceptions) than he did as a junior (65 tackles, two interceptions) but entered the draft anyway. Still earned first-team All-America honors in 2015. Good in coverage thanks to his days as a corner. Quick to diagnose a play and go for it. Very good hand-eye coordination allows him to attack the ball in the air. Average speed. Just a tackler, not a big hitter. Teams questioned his commitment. “Sitting down with some scouts, they was tearing me up a little bit,” Bell said at the combine. “It’s something to fix, it’s not hard to fix. Just got to run to the ball a little harder.”
Projection: Second round 4. DeANDRE HOUSTON-CARSON William & Mary, 6-1, 201, 4.54 Lowdown: A Virginia native, Houston-Carson spent the first three years of his career as a starting cornerback and earned All-Colonial Athletic Conference honors as a sophomore and junior. An injury limited him to just nine games in 2014, but Houston-Carson was reborn as a safety for his senior year. Earned consensus first-team All-America honors in 2015 after he made 109 tackles (including 7 tackles for loss), intercepted four passes, blocked two kicks and scored two touchdowns. Glides to the ball with ease. Good vision leftover from his days as a high school running back. Posted the fifth-fastest 40 time among safeties at the combine. Great cover skills. Weapon on special teams, where he blocked nine kicks during his career. Needs to improve his angles. Still learning to play safety, especially in run support. Slender frame.
Projection: Third round 5. MILES KILLEBREW Southern Utah, 6-2, 217, 4.65 Lowdown: Killebrew was a four-year starter at Southern Utah and earned some form of All-Big Sky recognition in every season. His big frame is comparable to many of the safety/linebacker hybrid players that are popular in this year’s draft, though Killebrew is a career safety. He posted back-to-back seasons with over 100 tackles, peaking with a team-high 132 as a senior. Terrific tackler who is not afraid to unleash major hits. Not shy taking on blockers in the box, either. Tested very well relative to other safeties at the combine: first in bench press (22 reps); tied for second in vertical leap (38 inches); third in broad jump (127 inches). Does not anticipate very well. Questions about his coverage ability.
Projection: Third round BEST OF THE REST
6. T.J. Green, Clemson; 7. Jalen Mills, Louisiana State; 8. Jeremy Cash, Duke; 9. Darian Thompson, Boise State; 10. KJ Dillon, West Virginia
Inside: Michael Cohen’s mock draft; defensive back rankings
West Virginia’s Karl Joseph projects as a second-round pick and is the top prospect among safeties.