As good as the St. Louis Rams defensive line was in 2013, the same can’t be said about their defensive backfield. According to the analysts at Pro Football Focus (subscription required), St. Louis finished with the ninth-worst coverage grade in the NFL.
The aforementioned number should come as no surprise based on the fact the Rams allowed 21 touchdown passes, 51 receptions of 20 yards or more and 11 receptions of 40 yards or more. Furthermore, teams picked up 203 first downs through the air against St. Louis’ secondary.
However, the Rams possess an extremely young secondary and have five top-100 picks in this year’s draft. Odds are two of those five picks will be used on a cornerback and a safety. Some of the biggest names St. Louis will look to target are Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, Louisville safety Calvin Pryor and Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Even though the Rams' need for a slot cornerback is pressing, they would be wise to shore up their weakest position in the secondary—the free safety position. Per PFF, Rodney McLeod was the 75th-best safety in the league. He received a negative-8.7 grade in 16 regular-season contests and recorded 10 negatively graded games.
The good news is there is one safety in the draft who could offer the Rams hope and make fans forget about McLeod’s poor play. That player is Clinton-Dix. Why? Because Clinton-Dix would have Eric Berry’s ceiling in St. Louis’ secondary.
Over the course of his three-year career in Tuscaloosa, Clinton-Dix made a name for himself by being a tough, hard-hitting safety who displayed great strength, elite closing speed and top-notch vision. Moreover, he was a ball hawk who excelled in man coverage.
Ultimately, the last two attributes are the ones that have led people to the Berry comparison. Year after year, the first-round pick out of Tennessee is lauded as one of the best coverage safeties. In fact, the folks at PFF graded him out as the third-best coverage safety in the NFL.
On 63 pass attempts, opposing quarterbacks mustered up a 58.7 completion percentage when throwing into his coverage area and a 64.8 quarterback rating. Additionally, he notched 10 passes defended, three interceptions and surrendered two touchdown passes.
If Clinton-Dix brought this type of production to St. Louis as a rookie, the organization would have its first All-Pro-caliber safety since Aeneas Williams. Yet, before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s important to remember that statistics merely tell part of the story.
Let’s go to the tape and break down the most coveted characteristics of Clinton-Dix’s game.
On this first play against Texas A&M, Clinton-Dix plays the role of a hard-hitting enforcer.
As the play started to develop, quarterback Johnny Manziel knew he would have an opportunity to push the ball down the field. He had a clean pocket to work with, and the left wide receiver was breaking down the sideline on a “9” route.
As soon as the receiver squirted past the right cornerback, Manziel unloaded the ball. At first glance, it appeared as if he had made the perfect throw to beat Alabama’s Cover 2 look. Unfortunately for Texas A&M, Clinton-Dix delivered a knockout shot on the pass-catcher.
The knockout shot was set up perfectly. Clinton-Dix closed on the ball well, took the correct angle and laid a hard hit that made the opposition take notice. A play like that won’t garner him any type of recognition in the box score, but it changes the game from a psychological standpoint.
Clinton-Dix set the tone by enforcing his will and made Manziel think twice about challenging him deep down the field.
These were the types of plays St. Louis’ safeties didn’t make last year. On film, it’s evident that McLeod’s physicality pales in comparison to Clinton-Dix’s. Fisher and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams covet hard-hitting, aggressive players, which is why a hit like that one jumps off the film.
These next two plays, against Mississippi State, hone in on Clinton-Dix’s coverage ability. More specifically, his proficiency to cover slot wide receivers.
The Bulldogs offense deployed an “11” personnel set. Clinton-Dix dropped down into the box to cover the slot wide receiver on the right side of the formation.
As the play progressed, Clinton-Dix garnered position, latched onto the receiver’s inside hip and ran the route for him. He anticipated the wideout’s every move and undercut the pass as it arrived in the end zone. The end result was a drive-killing interception that sucked the air out of the stadium.
It’s rare to see a safety cover slot receivers as well as Clinton-Dix does. Like Berry, this is easily his most sough-after trait.
Clinton-Dix, on this second play in the Mississippi State game, showed the same type of coverage skills as he did on the first play. Even though he didn’t intercept the short, underneath pass, he anticipated the route perfectly, came back to the ball and broke up the reception as soon as he made contact with the receiver.
Considering McLeod was asked to cover the slot more often than not in 2013, Clinton-Dix could step in and fill that roll right away. This would also subdue St. Louis’ need for a nickel cornerback if it missed out on a top-tier guy early on in the draft.
This next play, against LSU, focuses in on Clinton-Dix’s closing speed.
Despite briefly mentioning it a couple of times before, this aspect of his game continuously jumps off the tape. On every play, it seems like he covers a ton of ground. That’s something you can’t say about every free safety in this year’s class.
Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger was looking to hit the slot wide receiver on a 10-yard slant route. Coverage may have been tight, but that didn't stop the senior signal-caller. He was banking on the fact his wideout would break open at the last second, but Clinton-Dix altered the receiver's plans.
At a moment’s notice, he broke on the ball, closed quickly and violently laid a hit on the pass-catcher. The eye-opening strike ensured an incompletion and stopped the drive dead in its tracks.
As beautiful as the hit was, Clinton-Dix’s closing speed was what blew me away. Speed and instincts are hard to coach, so it’s a plus when a safety already has those two skills developed prior to his NFL career.
In the highlight video above, key in on Berry’s capacity to cover the slot. It’s eerily similar to the way Clinton-Dix covers the slot.
Another likeness is the numbers both players put up in their final collegiate seasons.
In addition to Berry and Clinton-Dix having the same interception numbers (two), they both amassed seven tackles for loss. The only major difference in their statistical outputs were their combined tackle numbers. Berry finished his final collegiate season with 87. That was 36 more combined tackles than Clinton-Dix tallied in 2013.
|Ha Ha Clinton-Dix||Alabama||11||51||7||2||4|
Nonetheless, there is one major disparity between the two players. Coming out of college, Berry was a much better run defender than Clinton-Dix was.
Clinton-Dix has a narrow build, plays conservatively and has trouble getting off blocks. It's that simple.
Luckily, those downfalls are fixable with the right coaching staff. And if any one coaching staff can fix his weaknesses, the Rams’ coaching staff can. Their staff is filled with experienced tacticians who have been around the game for a long time.
With that being said, there is no such thing as a perfect prospect. Clinton-Dix does benefit from a weak free safety class, but that’s not his fault. He played as well as any defensive back in the country did, which is why he may end up being the only free safety drafted in the first round.
St. Louis’ front office needs to think long and hard about when it drafts for the second time in the first round. Clinton-Dix won’t be there in the second round for the Rams' taking, so it only makes sense that they draft him at No. 13 overall and insert him into the starting lineup next to T.J. McDonald.
Together, Clinton-Dix and McDonald would have the opportunity to become one of the finest safety tandems in the league.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus (subscription required).