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2024 NFL Draft

Saunders: Five Steelers Draft Takeaways from Khan, Tomlin

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Pittsburgh Steelers GM Omar Khan
Pittsburgh Steelers General Manager Omar Khan and Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin speak at a press conference at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex before the NFL Draft, Monday, April 22, 2024 in Pittsburgh, PA. (Karl Roser / Pittsburgh Steelers)

PITTSBURGH — Omar Khan and Mike Tomlin gathered the media for their annual pre-draft press conference at the Pittsburgh Steelers practice facility on Monday.

The Steelers’ top decision-making duo exchanged questions and answered with the Pittsburgh media for 26 minutes. They didn’t say much. What they did say — take with a grain of salt.

That’s par for the course when you’re dealing with NFL executives these days, and Khan seems to keep things even closer to the vest than average. In his offseason availabilities, he’s been loathe to discuss the Steelers needs, or the draft class in anything approaching specifics.

Even with what he has said, Khan’s words have required some serious stretching to stay within the bounds of truth. He expressed “full faith” in quarterback Kenny Pickett when speaking to the Pittsburgh media at the NFL Combine on Feb. 29. 

“I have full faith in Kenny,” Khan said. “He’s shown us some good things. Obviously, there were some issues with the offense and I’m excited about the impact that Arthur Smith is going to have on him. Arthur is very optimistic about Kenny. I know they’ve communicated. We’ll have some strong competition there and we’ll see how it goes.”

Eleven days later, the Steelers signed Russell Wilson. Now, they always said they intended to give Pickett strong competition, but clearly, that was something (perhaps a lot) less than full faith in Kenny Pickett’s ability.

So can anything be gleaned from what Khan and Tomlin had to say on Monday? Let’s try.

• Khan insisted, again, that the Steelers are comfortable with their internal options at center.

“Certainly, it’s an important position,” Khan said. “I’ve mentioned this before, but we have guys on the roster that have flexibility. We have options there. But there’s some good players at the position (in the draft class). We’ll see where it shakes out.”

The Steelers are not comfortable with their internal options at center. We know this because none of them played a snap over Mason Cole last year. Heck, Nate Herbig didn’t even spend much time as a practice center last year. 

Here’s what they might think: Center is not a particularly important position, this is a deep draft class, and they have options that go well beyond Round 1, Pick No. 20, so don’t freak out if they don’t draft one on Thursday night.

The Steelers are going to add a center in this draft class, I can nearly guarantee it. And they’ve talked to all the top centers. But Khan’s signature as a general manager has been finding value, and center is just not a good value in the first round.

So they are comfortable (enough) with their internal options to not feel like they need to reach for a center. That doesn’t mean they won’t add one.

• Mike Tomlin said he’s comfortable with the trajectory of the team’s wide receiver position.

“I’m comfortable, with the trajectory of that room,” Tomlin said. “As we’ve mentioned, guys come in ready made. There’s a lot of talent available to us, and a lot of those guys will participate. If you look at the kid from the Rams (Puka Nacua), he was really significant this year, and I think maybe it was a fifth round pick. That’s what’s going on at that position. 

“So it makes it makes us all comfortable, not just us, but us as a collective, the National Football League.”

Here’s what they might think: The Steelers have been linked to a ton of veteran wide receivers this offseason after trading Diontae Johnson to the Carolina Panthers.

They had a free-agent visit scheduled with Mike Williams, exchanged terms with Tyler Boyd, and called the San Francisco 49ers about Brandon Aiyuk. 

But what Tomlin is saying is that the Steelers don’t feel — right now — that they have to make a move at wide receiver because of the depth of the available wide receiver class.

He mentioned Nacua, the Rams’ fifth-round pick last year, as a way to point out that the Steelers should expect to get strong offensive contributions from whatever rookie or rookies they are able to land at the position. They also got a very nice year out of George Pickens in 2022 from a less-deep wide receiver class.

That could explain the somewhat low offer to Boyd, and the team’s willingness to walk away from those talks when it wasn’t accepted. The Steelers are going to get some help at wide receiver, but Tomlin doesn’t sound like he’s sweating it.

• So if they’re not worried about wide receiver and they don’t think center is that important, what does that say about what they have planned for the first round?

I think tackle has been the obvious value pick for some time, and well, if you’re comfortable with your depth and the depth of the class at your other positions of needs, then why the heck wouldn’t you take the best player available?

This is an extraordinarily deep first round of tackles, and the Steelers are going to have a chance at a tackle that would normally go way higher than their draft slot. This seems to make the most sense, given what they’re saying.

• Don’t expect them to trade down. 

Khan was unusually upfront about his lack of interest in trading down from No. 20.

“In my opinion, you never trade away from a good player,” Khan said. “But obviously, if there’s ever a scenario where it makes sense for both sides, it’s something we will look at. We’ll listen.”

• Figure linebacker in the team’s draft needs. The Steelers took a hard look at a lot of the top players at the position in the pre-draft process, bringing in Day Two options in Payton Wilson (NC State) and Junior Colson (Michigan) on pre-draft visits.

Monday, Khan was still reluctant to give an update on the injury status of Cole Holcomb.

I can confirm that Holcomb’s limbs are both attached and that he is capable of walking, which is more than the Steelers have let on about his injury status this offseason.

Khan could just be keeping things unusually quiet there, but the fact that they’re unwilling to commit to a timeframe for Holcomb’s return four and a half months after his injury can’t be taken as a good sign.

The Steelers have Patrick Queen and Elandon Roberts ready to go, but they were snake-bitten at the position last year, and the new kickoff rules could make linebackers more attractive special teams players.

Linebacker isn’t one of the team’s top needs, but I’ll be shocked if they don’t land one this week.