Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix enters the 2014 NFL draft as one of the top safeties on most draft gurus’ big boards.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper (subscription required) rates him best at his position and No. 16 overall. NFL Draft Scout ranks him No. 40, the second-best safety after Louisville’s Calvin Pryor. ESPN’s Todd McShay, back in November, said he’s the only safety that grades as a first- or second-round prospect.
But those evaluations cover a pretty wide range.
Is he really a mid-first-round pick? Or is it more likely that he’ll be available at the end of the first or start of the second? Is he the top safety? Or are there better options out there?
I’ll clear up some of those questions by looking at how the Alabama safety compares to other top safety prospects in recent years.
The premise is that, by comparing the Clinton-Dix’s college production and game footage to that of Eric Berry, Earl Thomas, Kenny Vaccaro, Eric Reid and Matt Elam—all safeties drafted in the first round since 2009—we’ll get a better idea of what we can expect of him at the pro level.
Comparing Clinton-Dix to His Predecessors
The five safeties mentioned above were all drafted in the first round within the past five years, though only one, Berry, was taken in the top 10, as you'll see in the following chart:
|Safeties Drafted in First Round|
|Eric Berry||Kansas City Chiefs||2010||No. 5|
|Earl Thomas||Seattle Seahawks||2010||No. 14|
|Kenny Vaccaro||New Orleans Saints||2013||No. 15|
|Eric Reid||San Francisco 49ers||2013||No. 18|
|Matt Elam||Baltimore Ravens||2013||No. 32|
While it’s too soon to pass full judgment on the three 2013 picks, the early results do look good for Vaccaro and Reid, both of whom made substantial contributions for their respective teams. Elam, too, has shown positive potential, starting all season for a solid Baltimore defense.
The 2010 picks have both played like first-round picks. Take away the ACL injury that kept Berry off the field in 2011 and slowed him down at the start of the 2012 season, and he’s been one of the best at his position since coming into the league. Thomas has put together four solid seasons, and this year he was voted to the Pro Bowl.
Here’s how Pro Football Focus graded each in 2013:
|2013 Production: Pro Football Focus Grades|
|Player||No. Snaps||Grade||Rank (out of 86)|
|Pro Football Focus|
Keeping in mind Vaccaro, Reid and Elam are rookies, in my estimation, all five players warranted their first-round selection, especially considering Elam was drafted with the last pick of the round. And so, if we find that Clinton-Dix fits with that group, it's more likely that the Alabama safety will likewise warrant a first-round selection.
The first place we’re going to look for similarities is in each player’s on-field production in college. Let’s check out how the players fared, statistically, in their final collegiate season.
|Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||Alabama||11||51||7||2||4|
Two things stand out. One, Clinton-Dix’s tackle total is low. Projected to 13 games, his total still reaches just 60 tackles. Second, he only had four pass break-ups. Playing center field for a defense that doesn’t budge much versus the run, you’d expect that number to be a little higher.
In 2012, starting 11 of 14 games, Clinton-Dix tallied 37 tackles, five interceptions and four pass break-ups. The interceptions look good, but in all, when you look at the career numbers of Clinton-Dix versus the other players, Clinton-Dix is a step below his competition.
But as evaluating talent goes, statistics rarely tell the full story. More useful is an analysis of game footage. So that’s where we’ll go next.
I watched film of Clinton-Dix from four different games as well as old footage of Thomas, Reid, Vaccaro and Elam. I couldn’t find footage of Berry (aside from highlights, which I didn’t want to use) so he won’t be factored into this segment.
What stands out about Clinton-Dix on film is his athleticism. In terms of size, strength and speed, he’s a rare combination—it’s one of the reasons he’s been such a high-profile prospect since high school.
(Clinton-Dix was a 5-star recruit, seventh overall in the nation, per Rivals.com. For comparison, Berry and Elam were also 5-star recruits. Thomas, Vaccaro and Reid were all 4-star recruits.)
Clinton-Dix has tremendous acceleration and closing speed. He looks solid in man coverage, and with his size, he should be able to cover wide receivers or tight ends. He’s got long arms that aid him in wrapping up defenders and moves with long strides that are surprisingly agile.
That said, he’s not as impressive as some of the other prospects. In fact, here’s how I would rate the five players:
1. Eric Reid
2a. Earl Thomas
2b. Kenny Vaccaro
4. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
5. Matt Elam
Reid looked impressive in every facet of the game. He was big, strong and fast, like Clinton-Dix, but his most notable attribute was his intelligence. He showed great recognition and awareness—there’s virtually no footage of him giving up big plays. On the other hand, I saw a few botched plays by Clinton-Dix.
Reid, additionally, is a tremendous form tackler. On film he almost always opted for the sure tackle over the big hit. Clinton-Dix can be a good tackler, but he often goes for a hit as opposed to wrapping up the ball-carrier.
Moving on to Vaccaro, most impressive was his physicality. He routinely blew up blocks and outmuscled whoever was in his way—something that Clinton-Dix didn't do. Vaccaro often finished plays with big hits. He looked much better in run support than in coverage, however, and didn’t appear as physically gifted as Reid or Clinton-Dix.
Thomas, likewise, appeared a little less athletic than Clinton-Dix, but he looked more physical—stronger at attacking the run game and better at tackling. He looked a little better in zone coverage as well.
Elam did not look very impressive in the film that I saw. He looked undersized and was often outmuscled. He looked OK in man coverage, but he didn’t look exceptionally fast nor did he possess awareness or recognition that stood out. Clinton-Dix clearly looks like the better prospect.
Where Will Clinton-Dix Be Drafted?
By my measure, he should fall somewhere after No. 18, where Reid was taken, and before No. 32, where Elam was taken. Of course, this is the draft, where teams often reach to fill a need, so it’s quite possible he could hear his name called No. 14, going to the Chicago Bears, or even No. 13, to the St. Louis Rams. Both teams are looking for safeties.
Additionally, there aren’t many other options at safety in the draft. Clinton-Dix and Calvin Pryor, the junior out of Louisville, are the only two safeties to rank as top-50 prospects, according to NFL Draft Scout.
Kiper, per ESPN Insider (subscription required), ranks Clinton-Dix 16th and Pryor 34th. After that, the next-best option is Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon, ranking 99th.
In terms of supply and demand, there’s not much supply—only two quality options. But there will likely be a handful of teams looking for a quality safety. That could drive Clinton-Dix’s value up even higher.