For the past few years, the Dallas Cowboys have been linked to numerous free agent safeties. Whether it was Earl Thomas, Tyrann Mathieu, Tre Boston, or Eric Berry, there was always an outside belief that Dallas was ready to spend money and upgrade the safety spot.
It wasn’t just free agency where the Cowboys were linked to the position, that buzz carried over to the draft as well. Dating all the way back to 2017, there was a belief that the Dallas defense was being held back by lack of talent at safety, and it would be one of their biggest priorities to upgrade it in the draft. Once again, the Cowboys proved this narrative false, passing up multiple safety prospects early in the draft in consecutive years.
No stronger statement was made than in 2019. At pick 58, the Cowboys passed up on safeties Juan Thornhill, Taylor Rapp, and Nasir Adderley, to select defensive tackle Trysten Hill. Looking back on it, I’m sure there are many in Dallas who might want a do-over on that pick, but it spoke volumes of what the Cowboys old regime was about. They did not feel that the safety position was valuable enough to spend high capital on.
Some of the uproar about Dallas always needing to upgrade the safety spot came from the issues many had for the starter at the time, Jeff Heath. In his three years starting, he became one of the favorite targets of the Cowboys fanbase. Whether it was getting run over by Adrian Peterson, or dominated by Calvin Johnson and Alshon Jeffery, there was a common belief that Heath was holding the Dallas defense back.
Jeff Heath plays like he's in slow motion for a player with great athleticism. Has every opportunity to make a play on this ball, but sits back, hesitates, and gives up the score. pic.twitter.com/ahurqA5IVD— Connor Livesay (@ConnorNFLDraft) October 15, 2019
When Mike McCarthy took over this offseason, the belief of not valuing the safety spot held by the old regime immediately seemed to change. For the first time in years, Dallas signed a legitimate, starting-caliber safety in Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. McCarthy knew Clinton-Dix well, he drafted Clinton-Dix back in 2014 with Green Bay. The signing of Clinton-Dix all but forced Jeff Heath out the door, and one week later, he signed a two-year deal with the Las Vegas Raiders, ending his tenure in Dallas.
Clinton-Dix is a much higher profile name than Heath. The Alabama product was drafted with the 21st pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. In his third season in the NFL, Clinton-Dix made his first Pro Bowl. He also brings with him tons of experience as a starter. In his six years in the NFL, Clinton-Dix has started 90 of the 96 games he’s played in. He’s also never missed a single game in his career, a pretty remarkable stat for someone who is around the ball as much as he has been.
After signing a one-year deal last offseason with the Chicago Bears, Clinton-Dix was on his third team in two years. Despite the Bears not living up to expectations as a team, Clinton-Dix actually had a very solid season. The safety recorded 78 total tackles, five pass defenses, and recorded two interceptions and fumble recoveries.
One of the biggest knocks on Clinton-Dix has always been his ability, or willingness, to tackle. Since he entered the league in 2014, he has missed 51 tackles. The only season he missed less than eight was his Pro-Bowl year back in 2016, but last season with Chicago Clinton-Dix showed some improvement. In a six week stretch from Week Ten to Week Fifteen, Clinton-Dix recorded 25 tackles to just one missed tackle, according to Pro Football Focus.
Here is another great tackle by Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, this time on fourth down. Coming into 2019, people doubted his ability to tackle in open space, but he has done a good job with Chicago. @PFF_Bears has him with only 4 missed tackles on the season, which is tied with Adrian Amos. pic.twitter.com/gsyT3JVcAL— Nicholas Moreano (@NicholasMoreano) November 26, 2019
The Alabama product is much stronger in coverage, and proved this last season. According to PFF, the safety held opposing quarterbacks to a 69.2 passer rating against when targeting him, and gave up just 24 catches for 220 yards on the season. His 75.5 coverage grade was the second-highest of his NFL career, and was actually nine points better than Pro Bowl teammate Eddie Jackson. He also has the ability to take the football away, shown by his 16 career interceptions, eight of them coming in the last three seasons.
The stats clearly back up the belief the Clinton-Dix is an upgrade over Heath. Clinton-Dix’s overall reception percentage for his career is 15 points lower than Heath’s, and he has given up almost 200 less YAC. Clinton-Dix also has held opposing quarterbacks to an NFL passer rating against of 52.9 in his career, opposed to Heath’s score of 97.4.
If Dallas wants to get the most out of Clinton-Dix on the field, the will have to play to his strengths and keep him away from playing in the box. The Cowboys will be best suited to play coverages where Clinton-Dix can play as a deep safety, using his range and coverage ability to his strength. Thankfully for the Cowboys, this looks like something we are very likely to see under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan.
Talent wise, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is a clear upgrade, over Jeff Heath. If the Cowboys’ coaching staff is able to use his skill-set to their advantage, Clinton-Dix could be a huge upgrade over what the team have previously had at the safety spot.