Over the next two weeks, Acme Packing Company takes a look at each position group on the Green Bay Packers and provides grades and insight on how they performed in the 2015 season. Today, we examine the safeties. Follow along with all of our positional breakdowns here.
Let’s wind the clock back to two years ago.
The Green Bay Packers were recently eliminated from the playoffs by the San Francisco 49ers for the second straight year, this time at Lambeau Field in the Wild Card round. Colin Kaepernick once again gave the Green Bay defense fits and feasted on the safeties the entire game.
Now fast forward to the present. The Packers nearly advanced to a second straight NFC Championship game, led in part to a strong defense and a rejuvenated secondary. Meanwhile, in San Francisco, Kaepernick has fallen back to earth so hard it’s in doubt whether or not he will be the 49ers quarterback in 2016.
The NFL sure can be a fickle league, can’t it?
The point of this is just two years ago the safety position was a big gaping hole in the Packers’ defense. Now, it’s one of strength.
How did the safeties fare in 2015? Let’s take a look below as we grade the four safeties on their season.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Clinton-Dix was drafted in response to the meltdown at safety in 2013, and two years into his NFL career he has shown flashes of becoming one the league’s elite safeties.
He improved statistically as he had 100 tackles, three sacks and two interception which were all increases over his rookie season. He also made a critical interception against the Arizona Cardinals in the divisional playoff game.
Clinton-Dix also became a much more sound tackler, which is welcome news to Packers fans who still shudder at the thought of M.D. Jennings being the team’s starting free safety. He had a much bigger presence on the defense this year which bodes well for him as he begins his third year.
Coach Mike McCarthy likes to see players make a jump from year one to year two in their careers. Clinton-Dix definitely accomplished that.
Burnett missed five of the Packers’ first six games, but given the team started 6-0 that didn’t seem to impact the defense’s results much.
Don’t take that as an indication of Burnett’s performance, because it isn’t. In the 11 games he did play in, Burnett was solid. He isn’t the flashy, big-play safety but his presence on the defense helped keep the team afloat when the offense sputtered after the 6-0 start.
Burnett has always benefited from having a competent safety alongside him and such has been the case with Clinton-Dix. Burnett regressed badly when opposite Jennings, but has been much improved since Clinton-Dix was drafted in 2014. He didn’t score a sack this year, but he wasn’t a liability either. With Clinton-Dix emerging as the playmaker, all Burnett has to do to hold his own and not get lost in the defense.
He accomplished both in 2015.
The cornerback turned safety turned all-purpose player was in a unique position. The team initially converted him from cornerback to safety before the 2014 season. Hyde didn’t last long in the starting lineup as Clinton-Dix proved he was ready quickly.
That left Hyde as the full-time punt returner and then as a nickel and dime back on defense. The results of this were mixed. He had three interceptions on the season but he often was a problem in coverage, which isn’t a good thing in the obvious passing down situations where the nickel and dime defenses are used. He also two fumble recoveries.
His athletic ability is obvious, but the Packers need to know when and how to use him. His limits in coverage (especially deep) hurt his chances a bit but Dom Capers is creative enough that he should still have somewhere for Hyde.
Hyde’s performance as a punt returner won’t be taken into account in this grade. Look for that on the special teams’ report card.
Banjo saw limited playing time, but he was active for all 16 regular season games. He saw action with Burnett out early in the season, but had minimal impact. That is both good and bad as he didn’t screw anything up royally, but he also did not make any plays either.
He plugged a hole and contributed on special teams. That’s basically what his job is/was and he did it.
Overall unit grade: B
Thankfully gone are the days of the M.D. Jennings era and the Packers have solidified the safety position. Burnett and Clinton-Dix are set as the starters and have played solid to good defense.
Clinton-Dix will especially be fun to watch as he continues to grow into the role. Not many first-round draft picks Ted Thompson has made on defense outside of Clay Matthews have panned out, but Clinton-Dix is looking more and more like a stud. It’s not far fetched at all to expect a breakout season in 2016 for #21.
In fact, it wouldn’t be shocking to see Clinton-Dix as a Pro Bowler next year. He won’t play in the game of course -because the Packers will be in Houston preparing for Super Bowl LI - but it would still be a nice honor.