Continuing our series looking at the Green Bay Packers’ 90-man roster heading into training camp, we examine the safeties and reveal our pre-camp predictions for the team’s 2018 53-man roster. Follow along through the week as we break down the roster position-by-position and reveal our predictions.
The market for free agent safeties around the NFL crashed this offseason, with a crop of good players at the position simply not seeing quality offers. This strikes me as odd, and while NFL front offices have their own highly paid analysts and likely understand positional value better than I do, I think they’re wrong.
The argument against safeties as valuable football players is that they need not be quite as physically gifted as their cousins at corner. Just like in baseball, where most second basemen are failed shortstops, most safeties are, to some extent, failed cornerbacks. If you’ve watched the Packers this argument probably strikes you as unconvincing, because safeties have had an enormous impact on team success or failure. During the Favre Super Bowl era Leroy Butler played the strong safety position as a very modern, Jack-of-all-trades half linebacker — equally capable of rushing the quarterback or taking Shannon Sharpe out of a game. More recently, and conversely, current free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix did more in the last two seasons to undermine the defense than just about anyone else. This isn’t entirely his fault, but it still serves as a stark reminder that the last line of defense is there to allow the first 3 lines to do their jobs competently, aggressively, and with the knowledge that if they are beaten, someone is behind them to clean up the mess. Once that trust is lost, everything goes to chaos.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
NFL experience: 4 years
Contract: On first-round pick 5th year option; base salary $5,957,000
2017 stats: 65 tackles, 6 passes defended, 3 interceptions, 0 sacks.
Evaluating Clinton-Dix in 2017 is nearly impossible given where he was generally forced to play in Capers’ defense. Capers’ focus on eliminating huge plays (which didn’t work) had Clinton-Dix starting absurdly far off the line of scrimmage, leaving huge tracts of land wide open in front of him. Far too many of his tackles were the result of him running up and touching a receiver who had fallen down in front of him.
While positioning did a number on his production, the bigger concern is that it did a number on his brain. He seemed tentative breaking on balls and hesitant making tackles when given the opportunity. It’s still an open question as to how talented Clinton-Dix actually is, as much of his popular reputation is based on a high volume of low-effort interceptions that happened to be overthrown right to him. While he was better than this earlier in his career, it’s hard to say exactly how much better.
HHCD is in the final year of his deal, and on a deeper team he would likely be in trouble of not making the final roster. In this case, the Packers will keep him around and see how he adjusts to Mike Pettine’s more aggressive scheme. If he takes to it well, he can make himself a lot of money next offseason.
NFL experience: 1 year
Contract: The second year of a 4-year, $4,233,413 contract, $1,218,846 guaranteed
2017 stats: 56 tackles, 5 passes defended, 1 interception, 2 sacks
Jones will replace the lone 2017 bright spot of the Packer secondary, departed safety Morgan Burnett, and it’s not going to be easy. Burnett excelled in run support while holding up his end of the defense in coverage. Jones showed flashes in 2017, and his insane combine measureables should buy him plenty of chances (Jones is in the 90th percentile or better in 40-yard dash, broad jump, and weight). Physical talent may keep you on the field, but the mental portion of the game is the tricky part, and the 2017 Green Bay Packer defense was among the worst places to learn the game. Without any consistent pass rush or discipline in the secondary, a host of young talent, including Jones, was unable to develop proper instincts and reactions as to where to break on routes, and when.
All of those caveats aside, there are good reasons to be optimistic about Jones. Mike Pettine’s defense is much more active and aggressive, and Jones’ best game of 2017, against the Bengals in week 3, was a very “Pettine” effort. Jones is still a project, but I suspect he is a project in a much better place developmentally now than last season. While there may be struggles early, I suspect Jones will own the job, and have a big second half.
And to every Packer fan draftnik lamenting the non-pick of Derwin James, please note that Jones is one of his closest physical comparables.
NFL experience: 2 years
Contract: The final year of a 3 year, $1,622,000 contract.
2017 stats: 17 tackles, 3 passes defended, 1 interception
Speaking of Derwin, outside of being 15 pounds heavier, Derwin has nothing on the former Louisiana Tech undrafted free agent. Brice threw up the same number of reps in the bench press, ran a faster 40, had a higher vertical, and was his equal in the broad jump during his pro day workout.
That’s where the similarities end, and 15 pounds is, of course, 15 pounds, but getting someone as athletic as Brice for free is worth applauding. Every UDFA is going to have some major warts, and Brice’s mostly involve coaching. He is a bit lacking in natural instincts, but he was among the most aggressive players on the team in limited action last year, and man can he hit.
Like a lot of players on this list, Brice could use more seasoning, and he may never pan out, but he’s got some tools to work with, and as a backup, the team could do worse.
NFL experience: 2 years
Contract: 1 year, $555,000 contract
2017 stats: 3 tackles, 1 pass defended
An undrafted free agent of the 49ers in 2015, Whitehead eventually landed on the Packer practice squad and graduated to the big club for a cup of coffee in 2016, and for 10 games last season as part of the rotating crew of injured defensive backs. Whitehead is shifty, and he’s had his fair share of fun splash plays with a recovered onside kick against Detroit and a successful fake punt against Cleveland, but he hasn’t shown much in the secondary, where his lack of speed, and suspect tackling made him a liability in very limited work.
Whitehead has some wiggle to his game, but he’s still raw, and if pressed into service in 2018 it’s likely that he will still struggle.
NFL experience: 2 years
Contract: The final year of a 3 year, $1,620,000 contract
2017 stats: 12 tackle, 1 forced fumble
One of the great mysteries of the 2017 season, at least on the back end of the Packer bench, is the question of what Marwin Evans did to tick off the coaching staff. Evans, a Milwaukee native who attended Oak Creek High School, should be a fan favorite, and at the very least he appears to be a better player than Whitehead. For some reason he rarely saw the field. Evans boasts a similar athletic profile to Brice, but he’s bigger, and in limited action, he has the most advanced cover skills among the UDFA masses.
It’s not an enormous crime that a player like Evans wouldn’t see the field much, but given the talent in front of him, it’s certainly a curiosity. If the team isn’t enamored at this point, it’s easy to see him struggling to make the team. I would prefer he get another look.
NFL experience: Rookie
Contract: 3 year, $1,710,000 contract
2017 stats: 70 tackles, 6 interceptions at James Madison University
We do not know much about Raven Greene, but he was an NCAA FCS star and holds the record for interceptions at James Madison with 14. While a tad undersized, his ball-hawking nature got him a look, and given the complete lack of true depth at the position, it wouldn’t be surprising if that look turned into an opportunity.