NFC West: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix

Football has always been a reactionary sport.

What offenses do dictates how the defense responds.

In recent years, as tight ends morphed from hulking, blocking behemoths who were anchored to the line of scrimmage into athletic, basketball-playing route runners, teams have scrambled to figure out ways to defend them.

[+] EnlargeHa Ha Clinton-Dix
AP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherRangy safeties like Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix are coveted in today's NFL.
The answer, as defenses quickly discovered, wasn’t in their secondaries.

As the first round of the NFL draft kicks off Thursday, safety will again be a position that teams gravitate to throughout the next three days. In 2011, just one safety was drafted in the first two rounds. A year later, three were. In 2013, there were five.

That is not a coincidence. As teams continue to make athletic tight ends part of their multiple receiver packages by flexing them outside alongside bigger receivers, the demand to stop them has increased, ESPN NFL Draft Insider Todd McShay said.

But it’s not just simply drafting more safeties that is becoming a trend. Teams are looking for a different type of safety than the prototypical smash-mouth hitter.

“You add those things up and it creates a demand for defensive backs,” McShay said. “At safety it creates a demand for a guy who is athletic and fast enough to cover, but yet is still big enough that he can go up and compete and contest throws against bigger receivers and taller tight ends.”

The Arizona Cardinals know how important a safety who can defend tight ends can be.

Last season, the Cardinals allowed 29 passing touchdowns, of which 17 went to tight ends. To make it worse, of those 17, eight were caught by tight ends in the NFC West. It was a major reason the Cardinals watched the playoffs from home.

It was also a major reason why Arizona didn’t bring back strong safety Yeremiah Bell, who was a big hitter, but wasn’t tall or fast enough to stick with tight ends like San Francisco’s Vernon Davis or St. Louis' Jared Cook.

Among the Cards’ needs in this draft is a tall, long safety with speed and range, and there are enough in this class that fit what Arizona is looking for.

“With the emergence of tight ends, especially the basketball-playing tight ends, the traditional, hard-hitting box safety (who) goes around 5-foot-9 and he struggles covering those guys,” Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said. “The taller, rangier safeties have become (more of a) premium.

“When you see guys making $10 million a year now at safety, that tells you it changed. (Seattle safety) Earl Thomas is a good reason for it, as is (New Orleans safety Jairus) Byrd. Those guys are game-changing players now. The emergence of tight ends and backs as mismatches in the passing game, you have to have a more versatile player there.”

Teams haven’t always placed a premium on safeties like they’ve done in the past few years. Arians remembered when safeties were lumped in with tackles as positions people generally discarded.

“Safeties and tackles,” Arians started, “everybody used to have a low opinion (of).”

The past couple of drafts are evidence of that changing.

Cardinals general manager Steve Keim believes there are four or five “really good” safeties in this draft -- of which Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor and Deone Bucannon are likely first-round selections. McShay listed about seven more safeties that could be drafted anywhere from the second to the fifth rounds.

Keim sees those safeties as potential starters later in their careers after spending time developing on a roster while contributing on special teams.

But football has always been a reactionary sport, and teams tend to follow the latest trends. A run of safeties will be seen this year, whether it’s on the first or second day of the draft. There is a demand and throughout this draft class, there is a supply.

“It’ll be interesting to see how it plays out, but I do think we’re gonna see more safeties go than probably in your average year in the last few years in the first few rounds,” McShay said. “It is not a great class necessarily, but I do think there are enough athletic guys and enough of a demand that we’ll see some guys come off the board maybe even earlier than they would in previous years.”

Mock draft: About that 'other pick

December, 19, 2013
EARTH CITY, Mo. -- ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay released his newest mock draft Insider Wednesday and it generated plenty of discussion when it comes to the St. Louis Rams and the second overall pick they own courtesy of the Washington Redskins.

Lost in the mix of McShay's projection of the Rams taking Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews at No. 2 was the fact that the Rams hold another pick, currently No. 14 overall, in the first round. McShay's projection there was no laughing matter.

OK, sorry, had to get that first bad pun out of the way now because I have a feeling McShay's choice of Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix to the Rams with their second first-round pick is one that's going to be quite popular in the buildup to the draft.

Here's what McShay had to say about the free safety and the Rams:

"This might be something of a reach, but I actually think that safety has taken on more importance with the increasing number of slot receivers and pass-catching tight ends. Clinton-Dix doesn't have elite man-to-man cover skills, but he has good range when asked to cover the middle of the field and very good closing burst. He comes in hard, blows up plays and isn't afraid to mix things up. He's exactly what you're looking for in terms of a complete safety, and he fills another need for the Rams."

The safety position has generally been the biggest weakness of the Rams defense in 2013. They believe they have one piece locked in for the future in T.J. McDonald, who has started every game in which he's been healthy. McDonald is more of a box safety, capable of coming up and helping in run support. What the Rams need next to him is a ball hawking type to patrol the middle of the field. Rodney McLeod has improved as the season has gone on but is probably best suited as a backup and special teamer. If Clinton-Dix fits the play making mode, he would make sense for St. Louis.

Of course, there are other directions the Rams could go here if, as McShay says, the team considers Clinton-Dix a bit of a "reach" at this point in the draft. A top receiver such as Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans or USC's Marqise Lee would also have to be intriguing for an offense still in need of a true No. 1 type wideout. If the Rams felt one of those guys was capable of being that, it's something they'd have to consider.

But at the end of the day, the Rams' biggest need heading into the offseason is help in the secondary. Cornerback Cortland Finnegan may not be back and if he is, it would almost certainly be under a drastically altered contract. That leaves Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson as the top two corners. Even if the Rams believe that's their starting duo moving forward, another top corner would remain a necessity with the need for at least three in today's NFL.

Although plenty can change in the next five months, there doesn't appear to be a defensive back worth taking in the top 10. Thus, going with the best secondary piece available, be it a safety or a corner, would make a lot of sense for the Rams' second first-round choice.