Over the past two weeks, we have broken down the Packers' roster position-by-position. Today, we wrap up our analysis with the safeties. Check here for the full list of our positional breakdowns.
If there was one position on the Green Bay Packers roster that had nowhere to go but up, it was the safety position.
After sputtering through a year with M.D. Jennings and Morgan Burnett at safety, Green Bay realized this area of the secondary needed the most help heading into the 2014 season. Jennings was not brought back but Burnett was, not only because he had shown promise in his first four seasons in the league but also because the Packers owed him some decent money (he signed a four year contract worth up to $26 million before the 2013 season).
So the Packers were left with a conundrum: what to do with that other safety spot? It was most likely going to be dealt with in the draft, but could there already be an in-house option, perhaps converting second-year cornerback Micah Hyde to safety?
It turns out they did a little bit of both.
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
6'1" 208 lbs
93 tackles (66 solo), one sack, one interception, 6 pass deflections
There is always a learning curve with rookie defensive backs and Clinton-Dix was no exception. He had some struggles early on, missing some tackles and taking some time to adjust to the speed of the NFL game.
Thankfully for the Packers that was a short transition period. Clinton-Dix grew as the season went on, eventually working his way into the starting lineup, and showing a nose for the ball and the coverage skills a team wants in a free safety. He even did something no Packers safety had done since late in the 2012 season: intercept a pass! That alone, sadly, almost automatically met expectations for the rookie.
He also showed a willingness to play near the line of scrimmage and isn't afraid to hit people. That instinct will serve him well going forward as he showed potential to be one of the best safeties in the game.
6'1" 209 lbs
130 combined tackles (94 solo), 1.5 sacks, one interception, 4 pass deflections and one forced fumble
Burnett was given a stay of execution after a disastrous 2013 season in which both he and Jennings made up one of the worst safety tandems in the league. Burnett's contract may have had something to do with that as well, but he also showed promise in the past with a competent free safety next to him (Nick Collins, Charles Woodson).
With Clinton-Dix on board, it was hoped Burnett would return to form.
The results? It wasn't as bad as 2013, as Burnett had a bounce back season. He too finally intercepted a pass, set a career high in tackles, and forced a fumble for the first time since 2012. His tackling could still use some work as the defense as a whole struggled in the running game, but Burnett recovered nicely after a horrid 2013.
Don't hold his slide in the NFC Championship Game against him, either. He did what Julius Peppers was telling him to do, and when a player like Peppers speaks up you have a tendency to listen.
6'0 197 lbs
59 tackles (45 solo), one sack, seven pass deflections, two interceptions
Many thought heading into the offseason the Packers would convert Hyde to a safety and they would turn out to be correct.
He started 12 games this season, and though he made a bigger splash on special teams with two punt returns for touchdowns, Hyde also continued to show he could be depended on in the secondary. The nose for the ball he showed as a rookie further developed in his sophomore season and is a decent option as a nickel or some back.
6'2" 216 lbs.
25 tackles (22 solo)
Richardson was once thought as a potential solution for Green Bay's woes at the safety position. Since he is slightly taller and bigger than both Clinton-Dix and Burnett, he could be at least a rotational player and could step in should injuries occur.
Instead he found himself mainly as a special teams player and as a backup. He was ready to go as Burnett battled through some injuries and missed the game against the New Orleans Saints, while occasionally contributing in a "heavy" nickel formation.
Richardson is a pending restricted free agent and the Packers would be wise to consider bringing him back as he is a solid backup.
Overall unit grade: B
You can't do any worse than what the Packers' safeties did in 2013. Defensive coordinator Dom Capers shook the position up thanks to the drafting of Clinton-Dix and the conversion of Hyde to a safety and the moves worked for the most part.
Missed tackles continue to be an issue but the growth of Clinton-Dix and the resurgence of Burnett has taken some pressure off a talented group of cornerbacks.
It will be interesting to see how much growth the safeties show in 2015, but consider the weakest link of the defense heading into 2014 fixed. Clinton-Dix has shown potential to finally be the replacement for Collins the Packers have sought for so long. If he can match that, the safeties are in fine shape for years to come.