Drafting a safety in the first round has become, in popular opinion, a do-or-die scenario for the Green Bay Packers, with analysts and fans alike working themselves into a frenzy over the move. But it doesn't have to be.
There are many ways for the Packers to address their admittedly huge need at safety, and most of them don't involve drafting one in the first round.
Now, let's establish something right off the bat: If Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix is available with the 21st-overall pick, Green Bay should and likely will take him. It's a pick that satisfies both a position of great need and also extreme value, as Clinton-Dix has been projected in some mock drafts to go off the board as early as the No. 11 pick to the Tennessee Titans.
Clinton-Dix is a rare talent who has the potential to be a game-changing addition to any secondary, and it's hard to imagine Green Bay will pass him up at the 21st pick.
But if Clinton-Dix isn't available then and the Packers elect not to draft a safety in the first round, the sky will not come crashing down. The world will keep spinning. And the Packers may end up better off for it in the end.
This year's safety class is quite deep, with legitimate talent to be found as deep as the sixth round. That fact further increases the likelihood that Thompson may choose to draft the player he perceives as having the highest value in Round 1 and picks up a safety in a later round.
The below scenarios would all sufficiently address the Packers' need at safety, while in some cases improving other areas of the team as well. While these scenarios vary in degrees of likelihood, the main point here is that the Packers can still make the improvement at safety they need without needing to target one in the first round.
Scenario No. 1: Calvin Pryor falls to Round 2 and Green Bay selects him there
Though it's possible Louisville's Calvin Pryor lasts until the second round, it's unlikely he will be on the board by the time the Packers pick at No. 21 (53rd overall). In his first mock draft of the year, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks has Pryor off the board at No. 22 overall, while Daniel Jeremiah has the Dallas Cowboys selecting him at No. 17. And CBSSports.com estimates he'll be off the board in Rounds 1-2.
Thus, if the Packers want to target him early in the second round, Ted Thompson would need to trade away the team's first-round pick for an early second-round pick and likely a third-rounder.
That means the Packers would lose the opportunity to take another defensive playmaker in the first round, such as defensive tackles Ra'Shede Hageman or Louis Nix. However, they could double down in the second and third rounds, selecting Pryor early on and then coming back with the 53rd overall pick to select a defensive tackle or inside linebacker.
Though Clinton-Dix topped prospect rankings early on, Pryor's draft stock is on the rise. He very well may be a more complete safety than Clinton-Dix, excelling both against the run and in coverage, demonstrating physicality in his tackles and taking excellent angles. It's too early to predict if he'll end up lasting into the second round, but it's not probable he's on the board at No. 53 overall.
Rather than trade down, the following scenarios seem more likely, mainly because it's hard to imagine Thompson giving up a first-round pick in 2014 for anything less than a first-round pick in 2015, which wouldn't satisfy the issues the team needs to address heading into next season.
Scenario No. 2: Green Bay selects a high-value defensive lineman in Round 1 and takes a safety in a later round
With four defensive linemen set to become unrestricted free agents this offseason—B.J. Raji, Ryan Pickett, Johnny Jolly and C.J. Wilson—there's no doubt Green Bay would do well to select a top down lineman with the No. 21 pick.
Hageman and Nix both received grades over 90 by ESPN Scouts Inc., indicating they are rare players, demonstrating "rare abilities and can create mismatches that have an obvious impact on the game."
There aren't too many rare talents in any given draft, and with Thompson's known emphasis on value, it's hard to imagine him passing up either of these immediate contributors. Safety is the greatest need, but especially if Clinton-Dix is off the board and one of these two defensive tackles remain by the 21st pick, the Packers might be better off for it if they took Hageman or Nix.
As for safeties who are likely to be on the board late in the second or third rounds, keep an eye on Stanford's Ed Reynolds and Florida State's Terrence Brooks. Reynolds, who just declared for the draft last week, was All-Pac-12 in the last two seasons, and was 12th in the nation in interceptions his junior year, averaging 0.43 per game.
Reynolds' nose for the ball is exactly what the Packers need at safety—remember this was a group with zero interceptions in 2013. Reynolds set a school record his junior year with three interceptions returned for a touchdown, and notched another in the 2013 opener.
He has also demonstrated an ability to take the right angle in coverage, an area in which the Packers had too many gaffes in 2013. He would be an excellent pick later in the second round if Pryor is taken at the beginning.
If Thompson chooses to wait until Round 3 to address the position, Brooks will be there; he could possibly even drop into the fourth, though that's less likely given the widespread need for a safety by multiple teams (including, in draft order, the St. Louis Rams, Tennessee Titans, Chicago Bears, Dallas Cowboys and of course, Green Bay), which may cause them to reach for one.
Brooks was a vital part of a national champion Seminoles team that led the nation in interceptions in 2013 with 26. He had two interceptions and a fumble recovery his senior year. Though he's slightly undersized for a free safety, at 5'11", his history as a cornerback explains his cover skills.
The only area of concern for Green Bay might be his occasional missed tackle, which is the last thing this secondary needs given the current group's struggles there.
If the Packers wanted to look at a strong safety, Deone Bucannon out of Washington State could be on the board by the 53rd overall pick. He has the widest wingspan of any of the safeties in this draft class and is a hard-hitting physical tackler.
Even more possibilities the Packers could consider in later rounds are USC's Dion Bailey and North Carolina State's Dontae Johnson.
If the Packers don't have an opportunity to select Clinton-Dix or Pryor, Reynolds, Brooks and Bucannon are talented difference makers who would upgrade the position group significantly.
Scenario No. 3: Green Bay acquires a veteran safety in free agency
Though his history in free agency does include signing Charles Woodson, Ryan Pickett and Jeff Saturday, Thompson's philosophy is clear: draft and develop. And with 17 unrestricted free agents who will walk if they're not paid, Thompson has his hands full just dealing with keeping existing players. Still, could this be the year Thompson makes another splashy free agent acquisition?
"If an opportunity presents itself and it helps us be better, then yes," Thompson said this week, per Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "But I think doing it for the sake of doing it is a waste of time and energy."
Not to mention money. A pet theory of Packers fans is that the team will make a play for Jairus Byrd if he's not re-signed by the Buffalo Bills, which seems likely given that the club just used the franchise tag on him last offseason and it may be prohibitively expensive to do so again this year. Byrd made $6.916 million in 2013, and the deal he's looking for will be significantly more than that.
After all, last offseason he was reportedly "demanding to be the highest-paid safety in the league" per SI.com's Chris Burke. A deal like that would have to be higher than the $8.25 million Troy Polamalu will make as a base salary in 2014.
It's likely any team wanting to draw Byrd's interest would have to offer something in that neighborhood, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers did last offseason with a 5-year deal worth $8.25 million per year.
The Packers would be hard-pressed to offer Byrd that kind of money when they're staring down the possibility of losing their starting center and cornerback to free agency if they can't make a competitive offer.
But Byrd isn't the only safety who may hit the free agent pool. The Giants have not yet re-signed Stevie Brown, though it's probable they will. Still, if Brown is left to entertain offers, it's possible the Packers could make a play for him.
His ACL tear last preseason may make some teams wary and drive his price down, though Brown is reportedly ahead of schedule in his rehab according to Dave Hutchinson of The Star Ledger.
When Thompson said if an opportunity presents itself that makes sense and helps the Packers improve, he would consider it, this would be just the kind he would be likely to consider. Brown wouldn't demand an outrageous amount of money and has a bright future.
Then, of course, there's Donte Whitner, a signing that would be satisfying on multiple levels. Per Taylor Price of 49ers.com, everyone from head coach Jim Harbaugh to general manager Trent Baalke has said they'd like Whitner to return.
When asked if he'd like to, Whitner said, "Everybody expresses they want me back, but you know this is a business. Sometimes players don't fit into what you want to do salary-cap wise."
Whitner made a base of of $3.85 million in 2013, which would make him less expensive to acquire than Byrd. But, again, do the Packers have more money to offer him than any other team?
There is one indirect benefit Green Bay could receive even if it chooses not to pursue a free-agent safety. If another team that has a need for one and selects ahead of the Packers in the draft does sign a veteran, it makes the possibility of Clinton-Dix or Pryor being on the board for Green Bay more likely.
Whether the Packers choose to wait until the second or third round to draft a safety or make a play for one in free agency, there are plenty of options other than sitting on their hands and hoping Clinton-Dix falls to them in the first. If he does, he may well be wearing green and gold next season. But if he doesn't, there's no need to panic.