Changing times for Steelers at safety

Troy Polamalu has been a stronghold for the Steelers, but, at age 33, the strong safety is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. - Associated Press

For the better part of the past decade, the Steelers haven’t worried about their safety position.

Strong safety Troy Polamalu has been considered one of the best, if not the best, at the position in the league since the Steelers selected him in the first round of the 2003 draft.

And Ryan Clark had lined up next to him at free safety since 2006, giving the Steelers a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber players on the back end of the defense.

But age catches up with everyone and such has been the case for Polamalu and Clark.

Polamalu, while still effective, turned 33 last month and is closer to the end of his career than the beginning. And Clark, who will turn 35 this season, left for Washington as a free agent.

The Steelers signed free-agent safety Mike Mitchell from Carolina to slide into Clark’s free safety spot. Veteran Will Allen and young players Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas, a fourth-round draft pick last season, provide depth.

But the Steelers might want to add another player at the position, especially given the amount of playing time safties get on passing downs.

They’ll get an opportunity to add a safety during the three-day NFL draft that starts Thursday. The Steelers own nine selections in the seven-round draft, including the 15th pick in the first round.

Though the draft overall is a deep one, safety is one position that is thin, even with two clear-cut first-round prospects, Louisville’s Calvin Pryor and Alabama’s Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix.

Pryor (5-11, 207) had 69 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles last year. He ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and is an instinctive player who’s a big hitter.

“People question his coverage ability,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. “I don’t. I think he’s an enforcer, a hitter, a great kid and a very consistent player.”

Clinton-Dix (6-1, 208), whose given name is Hasean, also ran a 4.58 at the combine and is considered slightly better in coverage than Pryor, though he’s not as physical tackling. He had 51 tackles and two interceptions last season after picking off five passes in 2012.

“Clinton-Dix has range; he can cover,” said Kiper. “He’s a pretty good tackler. I think he missed an open-field tackle or two.”

One of the two, or both, could be available when the Steelers pick at No. 15 in the first round.

In the second round, a pair of strong safeties, Jimmy Ward of Northern Illinois and Washington State’s Deon Bucannon, could be tempting.

Ward is a big hitter, while Bucannon (6-1, 211) is a big, rangy safety with coverage skills.

Bucannon also played cornerback during his college career.

In the middle rounds, Minnesota’s Brock Vereen, the brother of New England running back Shane Vereen, would be a value pick at strong safety, and Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon would be a solid late pick.

After the top two free safeties, there are a few cornerbacks who could be tempting to move to free safety, including Utah’s Keith McGill (6-3, 211), Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 218) and Lindenwood’s Pierre Desir (6-1, 198).

Dale Lolley has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1993 after previously working at WJAC-TV and the Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown, and The Derrick in Oil City. A native of Fryburg, Pa., he is a graduate of North Clarion High School and the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, where he earned a degree in journalism. He has covered the Pittsburgh Steelers since joining the Observer-Reporter in 1993, and also serves as the outdoors editor. He also is a radio host for Pittsburgh’s ESPN 970-AM, and serves as administrative adviser for the Red & Black, Washington & Jefferson College’s student newspaper.


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