49ers defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans acknowledged the team has a competition at strong safety after Tuesday’s practice: So, a lot of competition and those guys are still just battling it out to see who comes away with the top spot.”
The three players who are in contention to start next to Jimmie Ward couldn’t be more different. There’s Tavon Wilson, Talanoa Hufanga, and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.
Wilson, 30, spent six of his nine seasons running a Bill Belichick-style of defense. Wilson has appeared in 125 games with 45 starts since 2012. Wilson is a Super Bowl Champion, but he’s never been a player with gaudy stats. Wilson has eight career interceptions, and four of them came during his rookie year in 2012.
Hufanga was a fifth-round pick, but that wasn’t due to his skill set on the field. Instead, the rookie out of USC’s injury history was a real concern. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and first-team All-American doesn’t fall to Day 3 of the NFL Draft by accident. Hufanga suffered two broken collarbones, had a shoulder injury on the same side, as well as a concussion.
The former Alabama star was selected 21st overall in the ‘14 NFL Draft. By his third season, Clinton-Dix was a Pro Bowler after a five-interception season. Between 2015 and 2019, Clinton-Dix never missed a start.
So, what happened? Clinton-Dix was traded to Washington on October 30, 2018, for a fourth-round pick. Fast forward to free agency in 2020, and HCD didn’t sign a deal with Dallas until April 7 — a one-year, $3.75 million contract.
Acme Packing Company’s fearless leader Justis Mosqueda’s one-liner on the newest 49ers safety was that “he has good ball skills but also loses flight of the ball and is an iffy tackler.”
Clinton-Dix hasn’t been on the 49ers roster for a week, but he’s already made an impression. He intercepted Trey Lance during Monday’s practice with the second team. Here’s Ryans on Ha Ha’s first couple of days at practice:
“Oh yeah, Ha Ha, he finds the ball or the ball finds him all the time. It’s seemed to be this way in his career. Throughout his entire career, he’s just always around the ball. And he’s found it a couple of days here in practice with him still new and learning the scheme it’s good to see him out there making plays.”
Labeling safeties as “free” and “strong” are a thing of the past. San Francisco’s safeties have been interchangeable for the past couple of seasons now. Jaquiski Tartt played the deep center field role when healthy more than Jimmie Ward in 2019.
Wilson and Hufanga are better served closer to the line of scrimmage, but that limits what you can do as a defensive coordinator if you don’t trust your “post” safety.
Aside from injuries, speed was a concern for Hufanga during the draft. I’m not going to knock him too much for underestimating Tyreek Hill’s speed to the edge in seemingly his first opportunity as a professional football player, but Hufanga’s pass interference came as a single-high safety, too.
Familiarity should help Clinton-Dix. Remember, Wilson comes from a Belichick background. That means a lot of single-high coverage and playing man coverage in slot. He wasn’t playing the Devin McCourty role.
Per Tru Media, since 2015, Clinton-Dix had played 345 snaps when the defense started with two-high safeties compared to Wilson’s 280. For further context, Wilson played 31 games compared to HCD’s 16.
The 49ers have been running a two-high “cover-4 shell” since 2019. The days of the Niners running “country cover-3” stopped as soon as Joe Woods entered the building in early ‘19.
Can Clinton-Dix have an impact? He believes he can. After he was released before the start of the season, Clinton-Dix opted out of 2020 instead of joining another team’s practice squad. He said on Monday that the focus was on improving his mental health and “looking at the man in the mirror:”
“Sometimes you get into this game and you lose yourself. You start thinking and start questioning yourself and questioning your ability of who you are as an individual. I want to make sure I never lost that. I had my highs and lows in this ballgame. But I know what I put on tape and I want to make sure I remain consistent.”
Clinton-Dix told the media on Tuesday that he plans to earn the respect of his teammates:
“I’m nowhere near done and I’m here to prove that now. These guys have been working for 15 days. This is my second day. If I’m out here lollygagging or not giving full effort it’s like I’m taking food out of people’s mouths. I don’t want to do that. I’m here to show my teammates that I want to be a part of this organization and do what I can to earn a spot.”
So long as he keeps making plays, Clinton-Dix won’t have to worry about his he’s stepping on anyone else’s toes. Playmakers are welcomed in any organization.
Making plays has been the biggest critique when talking about the 49ers' safeties. Since 2015, which was Tartt’s rookie season, the duo of Wilson and Tartt have combined for 6,103 defensive snaps compared to Clinton-Dix’s 5,899, per Tru Media.
Ha Ha will have an opportunity to play, especially if he keeps getting his hands on the ball. While Clinton-Dix said, “I’ve got 15 years left in my tank” and “hell no” if he thought he was done playing football, he seemed set on being a team player above all:
“Really, just getting the respect of my teammates, and just coming out and trying to make a statement, find my role on this team. It’s a great organization. It’s a great team, and I just want to be a part of it. I’ll do anything I can to be a part of it.”
He has the right approach. But, of course, making plays on the ball won’t hurt, either.
If Clinton-Dix has a strong couple of joint practices against the Chargers and follows that up with an impressive showing in the preseason game, he’d secure a roster spot and perhaps reps with the first team.
With Tartt and Tony Jefferson on the injured reserve, only a journeyman safety and a fifth-round rookie stand in his way of starting in what I’ll go out on a limb and say the most talented defense Clinton-Dix has been a part of.
Clinton-Dix can “make a statement” starting Thursday.