Countdown to combine: Packers' needs

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- As we head toward the NFL scouting combine, which starts Wednesday in Indianapolis, it’s a good time to look at the Green Bay Packers’ greatest needs this offseason and which prospects general manager Ted Thompson might be taking a closer look at during workouts and interviews this week.

Which position is the greatest need could be debated, but there’s no arguing that it’s on the defensive side of the ball. Before things get underway at Lucas Oil Stadium, we’ll look at three areas on defense where the Packers need help.

First up is safety.

Why the Packers need help: The Packers made a $24.75 million investment in strong safety Morgan Burnett last offseason, when they gave him a four-year extension that included an $8.25 million signing bonus. If Burnett is to live up to the rest of that contract, he will need to make far more impact plays than he did in 2013, when he failed to come up with a single interception for the first time in his four-year NFL career.

In fact, Packers safeties didn’t pick off a pass the entire season, the first time that’s happened in Green Bay in more than 50 years.

Here’s how bad their safety play was: Jerron McMillian, who opened the season as one of the starters while Burnett was sidelined with a hamstring injury, was released in early December and hasn’t been picked up by another team. Third-year pro M.D. Jennings, a former undrafted free agent, started every game at free safety but at different points in the season was splitting time with Chris Banjo and Sean Richardson, a pair of undrafted players. Jennings is scheduled to be a restricted free agent next month.

Thompson has drafted only one safety (McMillian in the fourth round in 2012) since he picked Burnett in the third round in 2010. He still has not adequately replaced three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins, whose Packers career ended in Week 2 of the 2011 season because of a neck injury.

There may be only two or three safeties with first-round grades, but the Packers should be in position to take one of them at No. 21.

Safeties the Packers should be watching:

Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama: An underclassmen who is known for his strong instincts and cover skills, he will likely be the first safety taken and could be gone before the Packers are on the clock. He looks like a free safety prospect, although he can come down and play in the box against the run. If Thompson likes him enough, perhaps he might be willing to trade up to get him.

Calvin Pryor, Louisville: Another underclassman who looks like he has the speed to cover ground and find the ball in the deep part of the field. Could push Clinton-Dix and overtake him as the top safety in the draft. It’s unlikely both will be gone by the time the Packers are on the clock.

Jimmy Ward, Northern Illinois: At 5-foot-11, he’s shorter than Pryor (6-2) and Clinton-Dix (6-1) and might be better suited for strong safety. However, he has shown the ability to cover with range and match up against bigger tight ends and receivers. Had a strong showing at the Senior Bowl last month to boost his stock.