Rookie Check-Up: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has now officially survived his trial by fire.
This week, he declared himself no longer a rookie. Sunday, he had two significant growing up moments.
First, he made the questionable decision to try to go in high for a tackle on Rob Gronkowski. Though the All-Pro didn't make it to the end zone, his encounter with the courageous Packers' rookie didn't end with the Patriots' tight end on the ground.
Gronkowski rumbled for a few more yards, and Clinton-Dix was left with nothing but something to tweet about the next day.
The second encounter, though, left Ha Ha with the last laugh. A late deep shot to Gronkowski had both Clinton-Dix and the big tight end fully extended for the pass. The ball slipped away, the man in stripes signaled incomplete, and the Patriots would go on to settle for an ill-fated Stephen Gostkowski field goal. Packers win.
In the narrative of the season, it would be easy to point to this game as the moment things came together for Clinton-Dix...but it wasn't his best performance of the season. Not even close, really. Pro Football Focus, the obsessive grades of all things gridiron, had the rookie pegged for a -0.6 on Sunday, his eighth negative performance of the season.
The negative grade comes from some struggles in the passing game. While Clinton-Dix allowed just one completion, it went for 14 yards, good for a -0.9 coverage grade. He made up some ground with a +0.2 against the run and a +0.1 in penalties, but still, PFF considered Clinton-Dix's performance so far this year to be below average.
In fact, according to the PFF grades, Ha Ha has been slightly below average the entire season. Here's his chart so far:
In PFF's grading, a zero is considered league average. Spread over the entire season, Ha Ha's total grade is a -1.8, or a -0.15 per game.
Negative numbers are never good, but in the context of PFF's grading scale, it's only slightly below average, and I think I'd rather have slightly below average Ha Ha Clinton-Dix than very below average M.D. Jennings (-5.0 for 17 games last year, a -0.29 average) or just plain bad Jerron McMillian who piled up a rating of -10.4 in 5 games as a primarily defensive player, averaging a stellar -2.08.
The point is, Clinton-Dix's slightly below average play is actually a big improvement for the Packers' secondary, and it's one reason the secondary as a unit has been pretty solid this year.
But we're not looking for average from Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. As a first round pick, he's expected to be a long-time starter, perhaps even a Pro Bowler. How, then, does Mr. Clinton-Dix stack up against the rookie years of PFF's best rated safeties? I'm glad you asked.
Eric Weddle is the top rated safety in the league this year, with an overall grade of +16.9. But here's his rookie season: a cumulative 2.8 in 19 games.
Antoine Bethea is next on the list at +14.9. His rookie season predates the origin of Pro Football Focus, but in his second year, he posted a 4.6.
Vikings' safety Harrison Smith (yes, the guy the Packers could have drafted instead of Nick Perry and no I'm not going to let that go) is third in the league at +12.8. He was almost as good in his rookie season, totaling a cumulative ranking of 10.8. (Perry, in his injury shortened season, managed an even 0.)
George Iloka is next up with a 10.8. He barely played as a rookie, though, accumulating a rating of just +0.5 in two games of special teams work.
Tashaun Gipson is just behind Iloka with a 10.6. He, too, was not super exciting as a rookie. Despite getting half a season worth of starter-level playing time, he was just a +0.5 for the year.
Finally, Earl Thomas rounds out the list of safeties charting a double-digit rating so far this year. His rookie season wasn't quite Harrison Smith-esque, but he was no slouch either, scoring a +4.0.
So what's the takeaway? First of all, I think we have every right to be encouraged by Clinton-Dix's play so far. The numbers clearly show that you don't have to be a mega-stud right out of the gate to be a successful player. He's done a lot better than the safeties the Packers rolled out across from Morgan Burnett last year, and he's managed to hang around at close to an average level despite only being a rookie.
On the other hand, there's clearly room for improvement. He's not one of the best safeties in the league yet. He's not even in the top 20, 30, 40, or even 50 safeties in the league. (He's 54th, since you're asking). We haven't yet seen the best of Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, but that's okay.
He's getting there. He's playing well enough that Micah Hyde has been back at corner exclusively the last four weeks, and as the season goes on, perhaps we'll have a moment where we can say without a doubt and without any narrative crutches that yes, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix has arrived.