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Saunders: How Will Steelers Draft Process Be Different under Omar Khan? (+)



Steelers GM Omar Khan Salary Cap

INDIANAPOLIS — In many ways, the NFL Combine is designed to be familiar. Part of the point of the league returning to Lucas Oil Stadium and the Indiana Convention Center year after year after year is to provide a level playing field for not only comparing this year’s draft class to one another, but to historical precedents, as well. But for the Pittsburgh Steelers and new general manager Omar Khan, in so many ways, this year is very different.

It starts with the leadership. For the first time since 1999, the Steelers are evaluating prospects and assembling a draft board without the direction of Kevin Colbert. Colbert retired immediately following last April’s draft, which was held long after his decision to retire as the team’s general manager. 

But Colbert had already done most of the leg work on the 2022 draft class and his work on the previous 21 was so respected that the Steelers wanted him around for at least one more. 

Last May, Colbert was replaced by longtime lieutenant Omar Khan, and that change presaged more changes. Brandon Hunt, who had been Colbert’s top scout for years, left the organization after failing to land the top job, leaving the scouting department extremely thin.

As a result, Khan brought in the largest infusion of outside blood into the Steelers scouting department in decades.

The biggest name among them is new Steelers assistant general manager Andy Weidl, who left the same position in Philadelphia to return to his hometown. Director of scouting Mark Sadowski (Chicago Bears), director of pro scouting Sheldon White (Washington Commanders), scouting coordinator Casey Weidl (Philadelphia Eagles), and scout Christopher Watts (New York Giants) all contributed to the large-scale raiding of other NFL staffs in order to revamp the Pittsburgh front office.

For a team that has prided itself on how little its has changed, with its famous run of three head coaches since 1969 only slightly overshadowing the fact that they’ve had just four general managers since 1971, it has been a season of enormous uncertainty in the ability of outsiders to predict how the team will act.

The Steelers under Colbert generally drafted well — after all, he helped build a pair of Super Bowl winners — but also drafted according to some fairly obvious principles. 

The Steelers preferred to take players from big schools that played in big-time football games, they placed great value on their own in-person scouting of players, meaning that more often than not, they stayed closer to home with their draft picks. The Steelers nearly always picked a player in the first round that either Colbert or his head coach had scouted at their pro day.

While there was a tried-and-true aspect to the team’s method of doing business, there were also pitfalls. Over the last decade, the Steelers appeared to fall behind the rest of the league in identifying trends in positional value. 

While the rest of the league has shied away from taking interior offensive linemen, inside linebackers, running backs and safeties in the first round in recent years, the Steelers used four straight first-round picks on those positions rom 2018-21, drafting Terrell Edmunds, Devin Bush and Najee Harris and trading for Minkah Fitzpatrick.

How will the Steelers operate under Khan, and how will it be different than what they’ve done before? Much of that we don’t know. Colbert never outlined his tendencies publicly. They just became evident over 20 years of his actions.

Khan worked under Colbert for much of that time, joining the Steelers in 2001. So it’s likely that he will carry on many of the traits of his former mentor. But some will undoubtedly be different, as president Art Rooney II hinted at this earlier offseason

Steelers Rooney Khan

Steelers GM Omar Khan, president Art Rooney II.


We do know much about how the new-look Steelers front office will operate. For years, Colbert was the man in charge of building the team’s draft big board, the overall ranking of every player the team had evaluated, along with a round grade on each player.

Before he was general manager, Colbert was a scout, and his background suited him to that task. Before Khan took the reins in Pittsburgh, he was the Steelers’ top contract negotiator and salary cap guru.

So it will not be the general manager assembling the team’s draft board this season. Instead that job will fall to Weidl.

“Andy’s in charge of putting the board together,” Khan said on Tuesday in Indianapolis. “He’s going to have a lot of influence from Mark Sadowski and Dan Colbert, who were a big part of this. Obviously, Coach [Tomlin] and I are going to be heavily involved. … Coach, Art and I will make sure to get together to make the right decision.”

When it comes to Rooney and Tomlin, their involvement in the draft process will be constants, and Steelers fans at times have under-appreciated the level of influence that the Steelers president has had on the team’s personnel selections. He was heavily involved in the decision to select Kenny Pickett last year, and will likely continue to be as or more engaged going forward.

While Khan will have more help on the draft process than Colbert did — he never even officially had an an assistant general manager, let alone one with a resume like Weidl’s — Khan will attack free agency mostly solo. Cole Marcoux has been promoted from within the organization to something approaching Khan’s old capologist role, but it will likely be Khan doing most of the heavy lifing in that department.

In many ways, the division of labor will remain, just with some changes in assignment. Rooney, Tomlin and the general manager will continue to conference on major decisions with the GM heavily invested in one area between the draft and free agency and his most-trusted assistant in the other.

RELATED: Steelers to Keep Restructuring Deals to Make Cap Space under Omar Khan


Where we might see even bigger changes — or at least more easily identifiable ones — are how the Steelers approach things like trades and positional value. 

This is the area where the team has arguably fallen behind the league the farthest in the stretch run of Colbert’s years, and it’s an area where Khan will likely make the largest and most noticeable changes to the m.o.

The biggest thing to anticipate from this sector is the Steelers being far more willing to make trades to get their preferred draft picks to better fit the value of the board.

“From that standpoint, yes, I probably am aggressive,” Khan said. “I’m a big believer in listening to every opportunity and then thinking it through, talking it over with my staff and making the right decision. But yeah, I’m open to anything, I’ll put it that way.”

When asked specifically about trading up in this year’s draft, Khan said he would consider it, but was guarded. When asked about trading down, especially the concept of creating a feeding frenzy for pick No. 33 after the first day of the draft, his face fairly lit up.

“I would expect that,” he said. “That’s definitely going to happen.”

Being able to have success in being a free-dealer will take a greater emphasis on tracking league trends and understanding the way the rest of the NFL will value the Steelers’ pick and players available to them. 

Under Colbert, the team ranked its own board, but paid no mind to the rest of the NFL. Those blindspots will be filled by executives like Weidl bringing in outside influence.

The Steelers are also in a fundamentally different place of roster construction than they’ve been for almost all of Colbert’s run. As opposed to a win-now team seeking a championship, the Steelers are mid-rebuild, with a half-dozen outright holes in their roster and a number of other areas that certainly could be upgraded upon.

Under Colbert, the team frequently honed in on one or two positions for their first-round pick. It seemed predetermined that the Steelers would take a running back in 2021 and a quarterback in 2022. This season, all bets are off, with offensive and defensive line, linebacker, cornerback, wide receiver and safety all seemingly on the board for picks No. 17 and 33.

At the end of the day, the changes to the organization might not be immediately apparent to the outside view. 

“Kevin and I were together for 20-plus years so you’re going to see a lot of Kevin in me,” Khan said.

Colbert had a lot of success, so that’s not a bad thing. If Khan can merge the Steelers’ successful history with some changes to bring the team’s front office more fully in-line with the modern era, it could be a long time before they have to make another change in the general manager’s office. 

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