GREEN BAY – The jump NFL players make from their first to second seasons can indicate how soon stardom may be around the corner.
Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix appears headed in that direction.
At the NFL Scouting Combine last week in Indianapolis, Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy raved about the progress Clinton-Dix made in his second season in 2015. He went so far as to say the former Alabama standout made the biggest Year 2 jump of any players from Green Bay's promising 2014 draft class.
It was a poignant statement, given that Clinton-Dix's rookie season wasn't too shabby.
"He's definitely the one this year," McCarthy said. "Ha Ha I thought had a tremendous year."
The No. 21 overall pick in the first round two years ago, Clinton-Dix led the Packers in tackles in 2015 with 117. His versatility as a coverage and box safety was evident in his combination of two interceptions and three sacks. It's easy to see those numbers improving in the coming years.
It's not just the statistics that matter, though. Clinton-Dix's ability to play anywhere on the field, and the instincts he showed both in run support and as a centerfielder, make him a valued chess piece in Dom Capers' schemes. He also has improved his tackling, which was a work in progress as a rookie.
"He's played at a very high level in a fairly exposed role," GM Ted Thompson said. "We've asked him to do a lot of different things."
Harder to gauge and easily overlooked was how Green Bay's secondary didn't suffer when veteran safety and defensive leader Morgan Burnett missed five of the season's first six games with a calf injury. The Packers began the season 6-0 and the defense allowed only one 300-yard passing game in that stretch, the big outing by San Diego's Philip Rivers in Week 6.
Contrast that with 2013, the year before Clinton-Dix's arrival, when a hamstring injury kept Burnett sidelined for the first three games of the year. The Packers went 1-2 and gave up more than 30 points in each of the two losses. The defense lacked a reliable safety complement to Burnett, and without him, the dropoff was noticeable.
Clinton-Dix and Burnett form without question the top safety tandem in McCarthy's tenure. Pro Bowler Nick Collins never had a full-time partner the caliber of either.
The continued partnership bodes well for the secondary as a whole. A similar dynamic could develop at cornerback as well, with 2015 rookies Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins now entering their second seasons alongside veteran Sam Shields.
"Our young group definitely has a bright future," McCarthy said.