The top defenses in the NFL feature a dominant game changer in the middle of the field. Coordinators everywhere are leaning on athletic, versatile safeties as designated playmakers to combat the tight ends and slot receivers terrorizing the league. They're also turning to safeties to help them stop the run with eight-man fronts, which require an extra defender to be deployed near the line of scrimmage. Thus, a top safety must also possess the physicality and toughness to be an enforcer between the hashes.
There are a handful of disruptive playmakers in the 2014 NFL Draft class, but Alabama's Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is the most dynamic of the bunch. Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 208 pounds with speed in the high-4.5-second range, Clinton-Dix is an athletic ballhawk with impressive instincts and awareness. He plays with vision on the quarterback, yet also displays a terrific feel for route distribution. Clinton-Dix will aggressively break on throws in his area, but he doesn't take careless risks in coverage. He trusts his eyes and attacks what he sees based on recognition. The disciplined approach will make him a coach's dream at the next level.
As a run defender, Clinton-Dix is active and aggressive near the line of scrimmage. He quickly sorts through traffic to make solid hits on runners in the hole. He prefers to throw his body around to make tackles, but he also shows the ability to make secure wrap-up tackles in space. He rarely fails to bring down runners on contact, which is key in the NFL, where mishits can lead to big plays on the perimeter.
With Clinton-Dix capably manning the box as well as he handles the passing game from the deep middle, it is easy to see why teams would view him as a designated playmaker in the back end. He's shown a versatile skill set that will allow him to fit into any scheme, as either a free or a strong safety. Additionally, he possesses a high football IQ and has a wealth of experience making calls. Given the importance of communication and execution, Clinton-Dix's mental abilities should help make him the first safety to come off the board.
All that said, I've come up with five perfect NFL fits for Clinton-Dix.
NOTE: The franchises that follow are those that would best utilize Clinton-Dix's talents, regardless of draft position or how the rest of the pre-draft process plays out.
St. Louis Rams (No. 2 overall pick, No. 13)
The Rams have assembled a young, athletic defense with playmakers on every level, but the unit still lacks a game-changing presence at free safety. Clinton-Dix is an instinctive center fielder with the speed and quickness to cover from numbers to numbers as a deep-middle player. Additionally, he is an aggressive hitter capable of delivering big shots in the hole as an eighth defender near the line of scrimmage. With strong safety T.J. McDonald showing promise as a first-year starter last season, the addition of Clinton-Dix could give the Rams the kind of dynamic safety tandem common among elite defenses in the NFC.
Chicago Bears (No. 14)
After watching the Bears' secondary allow 59 completions of 20-plus yards in 2013 (seventh-most in the NFL) -- including a division-clinching 48-yard touchdown catch by Green Bay Packers receiver Randall Cobb on fourth-and-8 in the regular-season finale -- general manager Phil Emery surely will make a concerted effort to rebuild the unit down the middle. Clinton-Dix would be an ideal fit as a deep-middle defender in the Bears' zone-heavy scheme. He displays exceptional range, instincts and awareness while playing over the top, and he's also an aggressive hitter and playmaker between the hashes. With Clinton-Dix capable of locking up tight ends in man coverage, the addition of the Alabama playmaker would give defensive coordinator Mel Tucker more flexibility to match up with the explosive aerial attacks in the NFC North.
Dallas Cowboys (No. 16)
Yes, Jerry Jones must replace the defensive production of DeMarcus Ware up front, but the back end also desperately needs some attention, specifically at the safety position. The Cowboys haven't trotted out a Pro Bowl-caliber safety since Roy Williams was in his prime. The unit needs an elite player to enhance the Tampa 2 scheme preferred by new defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli. Clinton-Dix would be the ideal fit, based on his athleticism, instincts and toughness. He attacks the ball from all angles and shows a willingness to bang when positioned near the line of scrimmage. Clinton-Dix also is regarded as a high-motor player with natural leadership skills. Dallas could target him to improve a defense that is seeking an identity at this point.
Green Bay Packers (No. 21)
Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers would like to get back to his usual attacking ways in 2014, but to do that, he'll need to add a dynamic safety in the middle to orchestrate the organized chaos. Clinton-Dix is well-versed in exotic defensive concepts, having manned the middle of Nick Saban's defense at Alabama. Additionally, he is the kind of aggressive playmaker in the secondary who thrives in a zone-blitz scheme that routinely places ballhawks in a position to make plays. With Clay Matthews and Co. adept at creating pressure in the pocket, Clinton-Dix could quickly become one of the NFL's premier pickoff artists in the Packers' scheme.
Philadelphia Eagles (No. 22)
The 2013 Eagles repeatedly were victimized by big plays in the passing game, as the secondary allowed 62 completions of 20-plus yards and 25 passing scores. Those numbers certainly aren't good enough for a team hoping to field a defense capable of hanging with the heavyweights dotting the NFC. That's why acquiring a versatile safety like Clinton-Dix -- even after adding free agent Malcolm Jenkins -- could be in the cards for the Eagles. Clinton-Dix is an athletic playmaker and a natural center fielder with extraordinary ball skills and instincts. More importantly, he is a tremendous leader who would bring a big-time presence to a unit that needs a dynamic player in the middle of the field. If coach Chip Kelly can find a way to secure Clinton-Dix as his designated playmaker in the middle, the Eagles could field a defense that possesses enough firepower to match their championship-caliber offense.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.