Now that the Atlanta Falcons have avoided a short-term marriage with current New Orleans Saints safety Rafael Bush, they can set their sights on some of the premier talents in forthcoming draft. Bush would've been a nice addition to the Falcons if his role was clearly defined as a third safety in sub packages—as it is for the Saints. But if 4-12 Atlanta is looking to truly compete in the stacked NFC, acquiring personnel—with potentially elite skill sets—should be first on the docket book.
For an aggressive defense that relies heavily on manufactured pressure schemes and multiple alignments, having a jack-of-all trades safety should be of the highest priority as well. Although safeties are a bit of an afterthought in certain schemes, former starter Thomas DeCoud showed what not having player with the proper skill set means for the Mike Nolan-led defense.
Alabama safety Ha'Sean "Ha Ha" Clinton-Dix is one of the very best talents, along with Earl Thomas (Seattle Seahawks), Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs), Eric Reid (San Francisco 49ers) Kenny Vaccaro (Saints) and Mark Barron (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) to come out in the draft in recent memory. There's not a player in the draft that fills the Falcons' void in the secondary better than him—in my most humblest of opinions (that sounds funny coming from me, huh?)
This is why Atlanta needs to think long and hard about making him its very first selection in May.
Now I can almost feel the collective eye rolls from you, the reader. Some are in the we-need-a-tackle camp. While others are in the edge-rusher-carries-the-most-weight camp. While either side can most certainly make a compelling case, both factions can be argued against as well.
For the people on the side of the former: throwing the ball nearly 70 percent of the time, telegraphing your scheme on weekly basis and doing so in a finesse manner should be taken into factor when jumping down the offensive line's collective throats. The coaching staff failed the line first and foremost. If you know an offense is going to pass the ball seven out of 10 times it makes it much easier to pin your ears back and get after the quarterback.
Not saying the talent on the line is elite or anything. I'm just conveying that the element of surprise was a non-factor from the Falcons offense last season.
As for the latter group, pass-rush is a necessity but there are plenty of options to be had with the second pick—namely Jeremiah Attaochu (Georgia Tech) and Dee Ford (Auburn)—both of whom look to be ready to get after the QB at a high clip for years to come. Waiting until the second round for a 6'1", 208 pound-safety with the type of skill set, size and grooming as Clinton-Dix's is akin to waiting on rain in southern California.
And we all know; It never rains in Southern California—at least that's what Tony! Toni! Tone! told us?!?
The Falcons flat-out had one of the softest defenses in the NFL—no sugarcoating it. When you give up an astounding 4.8 yards per attempt rushing, coupled with 8.0 yards per pass completion through the air (66%), being called soft is the least of your worries. DeCoud's struggles epitomized what was wrong with the defense.
His inability to play with any type of physicality, meshed with his poor coverage ability, was a major source of frustration for supporters of the Red and Black. Bush would've been an upgrade in the physicality department, but it can be argued that being physical is the only trait that he has that DeCoud lacks.
Clinton-Dix is a clear upgrade in every aspect of football over both guys. He excels at the finesse part of being a safety, but it's his physicality at the point of attack that separates him from rest.
Here we see Clinton-Dix's willingness to get involved in the run the game. He's one of the rare free safeties that seeks contact and brings the thunder when he arrives. Here his discipline to "run the alley" shows up with him being the last line of defense on this option play.
Clinton-Dix hits like a natural strong safety which would work perfect in the Falcons' interchangeable safety scheme. There will be plenty of times where the scheme will call for him to play an in-the-box safety role—which he could do exclusively if it came down to it.
Here DeCoud is acting as a de facto "Sam" linebacker in this particular sub package. His responsibility is man coverage on the "Y," but he must also navigate the run game in traffic—which was a major problem with his skill set.
Here we see Clinton-Dix in a similar role having to navigate the run game.
He willingly takes on a block.
He sheds the block (and leaves the receiver leaning like that old Michael Jackson video in the process) and keeps his eyes on the target.
He then makes the stop in emphatic fashion, limiting the run to a short gain.
In addition, his ability to make sure nothing gets past him is truly incredible. As a safety in a Cover 1 look, you know that if a ball-carrier gets by you it usually spells doom for the defense.
Here we see Alabama in base against "21 personnel." This is big boy football at its finest. If you're going to play that type of football, which is exactly what the Falcons have to do against the likes of Seattle and San Francisco.
As the carnage ensues, you have to be able to rely on your safety to act with a linebacker's mentality. Incumbent strong safety William Moore has that mentality.
There's not a knowledgeable Falcons fan that didn't pull their hair out seeing the poor angles DeCoud took in pursuit. That wouldn't be a problem with Clinton-Dix. He has an innate ability to judge both his speed and his opponents' correctly.
And in what will become a re-occurring theme; he will usually bring the thunder upon impact.
To truly understand what Atlanta covets in a safety is to truly understand what the scheme calls for. To put it simply: if you can't cover, aren't physical and can't adjust on the fly you will most certainly struggle in an eclectic defense like Nolan's. When pundits refer to Decoud's decline, you rarely hear them mention the evolution of the scheme being a major culprit.
DeCoud is a good safety in a zone-based defense. But when you run a ton of manufactured pressure schemes—while changing formations like babies change diapers—you need a play-making, versatile safety.
Here we see Clinton-Dix roaming in a two-deep shell. It's one thing to have the instincts to make a play, it's another to have the prerequisite skill set to get there and bring the thunder with you. He's savvy enough to excel in any situation he finds himself in, and the Falcons would plenty him in a plethora.
Here is Clinton-Dix in man coverage.
Not only does he get on top of the route, he practically runs the route for the receiver—making the pick. There's simply nothing on the football field that Clinton-Dix can't do. He's fast, physical and intelligent. In most schemes the safety position is a bit of an after thought; in the Falcons' scheme the safety is a prominent cog.
Whatever the Falcons have to do to get Clinton-Dix in the fold needs to be done. Even if it means selecting him with the sixth pick in the forthcoming draft. A secondary consisting of Moore, Clinton-Dix and second-year corners Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford could possibly end up being one of the, if not the, most talented in the league.
Throw in a pass-rusher like Attaochu and watch the plight of the defense change for the better.
Make this happen, Atlanta.