Countdown to combine: Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- With the NFL scouting combine starting Feb. 22, we review positions of need and who the Steelers might be looking at during the combine.

Position of need: Safety

Ryan Clark, the starter at free safety since 2006, is unlikely to be re-signed. Strong safety Troy Polamalu is on the back stretch of his career. The Steelers need to get younger on the back end of their defense, and finding a long-term starter at free safety may be one of their top priorities in the 2014 NFL draft. Look for the Steelers to select at least one safety a year after they traded a third-round pick so they could take Shamarko Thomas, the likely successor to Polamalu, in the fourth round of the 2013 draft.

Three players the Steelers might be targeting

Terrence Brooks, Florida State: Brooks, overshadowed a bit on a defense that led the nation in scoring (12.8 points allowed per game), could be an option for the Steelers if they don’t use their first two picks on a safety. They get another look at the former Seminole in Indianapolis after watching him at the Senior Bowl. The 5-11, 197-pound Brooks doesn’t have great size but he is strong in pass coverage, having converted from cornerback to safety after his sophomore season at Florida State. One intangible the Steelers may like about Brooks: He was not among the most heavily recruited players in his class, and he used that to drive him and play as a true freshman in Tallahassee.

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: The Steelers will take a long look at the player who goes into the combine as the best safety prospect in the draft. Clinton-Dix coverage skills make him a good fit for a team that has more of a need at free safety, but the Steelers have only drafted one safety in the first-round of the draft since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Of course that safety turned out to be the transcendent Polamalu in 2003. The more apt comparison when it comes to Clinton-Dix may be Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas, the 14th overall pick of the 2010 draft. If the Steelers think Clinton-Dix can develop into a player of Thomas’ ilk then they have to seriously consider taking him at No. 15.

Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois: Ward is another player the Steelers will get a chance to evaluate after seeing him at the Senior Bowl. Ward shined in Mobile, Ala., last month answering questions about how he would fare against better competition. Ward’s showing at the Senior Bowl built on a senior season in which he intercepted seven passes and recorded 95 tackles. The 5-11, 191-pounder isn’t the biggest guy so it is imperative he runs well at the Combine. Ward has been widely projected as a second- or third-day pick so he may be an option for the Steelers if they don’t take a safety in the first round. Ward is one of the best prospects in a safety class that is not considered deep. "He’s not a big safety, but he fits today's NFL with his coverage ability and he makes so many impact plays," ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. "He could go second or third round, but he's going to be a fast riser."