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2024 NFL Draft

Saunders: What We Learned About Steelers Offseason at NFL Combine



Steelers GM Omar Khan

INDIANAPOLIS — Rich Eisen’s hamstrings get a 364-day break. Jerry Jones can park his bus in front of a bar in Texas again, instead of Indiana. No one will marvel at large group of 300-pound men running for 40 yards on national television for another year. The 2024 NFL Combine has come and gone, and after seven days in Indianapolis, here’s seven things I learned about the Pittsburgh Steelers and their offseason.


Rolling into the second full offseason of Omar Khan’s tenure as Pittsburgh Steelers general manger, I think one thing is pretty clear about the way he’s going to go about his business.

He ain’t saying nothing.

Khan did, in fact, say words, both in his private session with the Pittsburgh media and his public session at the podium in Indianapolis. But I would hesitate in deriving a lot of meaning from them.

Khan gave fans and media a choose-your-own adventure of word salad, talking out of both sides of his mouth and giving some level of credence to almost any future path. Could the Steelers trade for Justin Fields? Spend $100 million on Kirk Cousins? Trade up to No. 3 to draft Jayden Daniels? Khan refused to rule out any course of action.

Of course, he also said that he has “full faith” in Kenny Pickett. 

Those stances are contradictory. He has full faith in T.J. Watt. I bet if we asked him if the team will be trading for Maxx Crosby this offseason or trading up to No. 6 to land Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner, he’d have said no.

You can’t have full faith in a starter at a position and then be seriously looking at competition for him. Draft capital is too precious. Salary cap space is too precious. Positions where the incumbent starter has the full faith of the front office get ignored in this process. 

If the Steelers had full faith in Pickett, they’d be signing Josh Dobbs as a token backup and drafting someone in the seventh round to maybe someday be his future replacement.

At some point after he said he had full faith in Pickett, Khan said he had faith in Nate Herbig to be the team’s center. I’ll believe that when I see it, too.

Khan has done a very nice job as the Steelers GM. He is allowed to hide his intentions if he wants to. But I think he’s proving that we probably shouldn’t take everything he says super seriously.

Pittsburgh Steelers QB Kenny Pickett

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett runs out of the tunnel against the Arizona Cardinals on Dec. 3, 2023. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now


That being said, I do believe that Pickett will be getting another chance to be the team’s starting quarterback.

The Steelers took a hard look at their offensive failures during the 2023 season, and they came to the conclusion that it was offensive coordinator Matt Canada, not Pickett, that was the bigger problem.

They said that with their actions by firing Canada, an unprecedented step for the franchise. Khan also said that literally in Indy.

“Obviously, there were some issues with the offense and I’m excited about the impact that Arthur Smith is going to have on him,” Khan said. “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.”

Pickett got one full game without Canada, and it was one of his best ones, engineering a victory over the Cincinnati Bengals. Pickett’s ceiling is probably not the same as some of the top quarterbacks in the NFL. He’s likely never going to be a Patrick Mahomes or a Josh Allen.

The Steelers knew that when they drafted him. They believe they can build a quality team on defense and with a running game and by scheming their way to success to compete without necessarily having the best of the best at quarterback.

It doesn’t take a lot to justify that stance. Look at the seasons that the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions had with Brock Purdy and Jared Goff at the helm. Mason Rudolph showed in 2023 what the Steelers can be when they get above-average quarterback play. That was always the idea with Pickett, and it’s reasonable to think that he could still provide that level of play with better coaching and a more sensical and more productive offense around him.


Let’s try to jive these four reports that have come out regarding the Steelers and Justin Fields this week:

• The Steelers are largely satisfied with Pickett as their starting quarterback.

• The Steelers are one of the teams that have reached out to the Bears about Justin Fields.

• The Steelers are not actively attempting to trade for Fields.

• The trade market for Justin Fields has been soft.

This really isn’t that hard. The Steelers reached out to find out the price on Fields. Of course they did. They have to. Khan wouldn’t be doing his job if he didn’t.

They are also not looking to make a big splash move at the quarterback position. When they add to that room, it’s probably not going to be for a lot of layout in either cap space or draft resources.

The Steelers asked about Fields. They got a price. They likely gave their own price in exchange. That was that. It does not seem like the Steelers are interested in Fields at the price proffered. It also does not seem like they are interested in being in a bidding war. If the demand for Fields is a lot lighter than expected, could the Bears come down to the Steelers’ price? Possibly. 

That seems likely to be the only way he ends up coming to Pittsburgh.

Steelers WR Dionate Johnson

Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Diontae Johnson celebrates a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 15, 2024. — Ed Thompson / Steelers Now


Diontae Johnson may or may not suit up for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2024, but whether the end of the line comes before or after the start of the season, you can see it from where we sit today.

One of the bigger surprises of the 2024 NFL Combine was the Steelers’ interest in the top wide receivers in the class, including potential top-five pick Rome Odunze of Washington.

I’m not sure if the Steelers will actually use their first-round pick on a wide receiver — more on that in a bit — but I am sure that the only reason they’d even be looking is that they’re convinced that they will not be signing Johnson to a contract extension beyond when his current deal ends at the end of the 2024 season.

Johnson has had an up-and-down Steelers career, with his otherworldly separation ability offset by a number of mental focus and effort issues over his time in Pittsburgh. He also has seemed unhappy with the team’s choice to go with Pickett as the starting quarterback this offseason.

A trade for Johnson would likely net the Steelers at least a second-round pick. Hey, you know what else is worth about a second-round pick? The Kansas City Chiefs are looking for that in exchange for the rights to cornerback L’Jarius Sneed. Maybe throw in Skyy Moore and call it fair?


Trading Johnson is easy to see. There’s another potential trade of a player entering a contract year that would be a bit more painful for most to talk about, but I think we should entertain it.

What if the Steelers traded tight end Pat Freiermuth? Freiermuth should have good reason to think that he’s worth more than his statistics suggest he should be, thanks to his chronic under-use in the Steelers offense. But will the Steelers agree with that assessment, or want to pay Freiermuth based only on his production and not his potential?

Also, new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith has shown a propensity for preferring his tight ends to be big blocking types more than just receivers. Look at how much he used Jonnu Smith over the obviously more talented Kyle Pitts last year in Atlanta.

Freiermuth has improved as a blocker, especially toward the end of 2023, but that’s still not his forte. Could the Steelers ship him out and let someone else deal with his new contract? They could even sign Smith to replace him as a pairing with Darnell Washington at the position. 

As things stand right now, I don’t expect the Steelers to draft a tight end. But if they trade Freiermuth, they could replace him with another Penn Stater. Theo Johnson looks like a perfect Pittsburgh fit.

Pittsburgh Steelers 2024 NFL Draft Target Georgia Tackle Amarius Mims

Georgia offensive lineman Amarius Mims runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine, Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)


This might be the 1983 of offensive tackle classes. The Steelers are drafting 20th, which is not usually a place where a team lands a sure-fire starting tackle. Last year, they had to trade up from No. 17 to No. 14 to land Broderick Jones.

This year, not only will there likely be one available at No. 20, they could have their pick of three or four.

Notre Dame’s Joe Alt, Penn State’s Ole Fashanu, Oregon State’s Taliese Fuaga, Alabama’s JC Latham, Georgia’s Amarius Mims, Washington’s Troy Fautanu and Oklahoma’s Tyler Guyton are all likely first-round picks at the tackle position.

The Steelers certainly need a tackle, with Dan Moore Jr. not exactly setting the world on fire and entering the last season of his contract. They might not need a tackle more than they need, say a center, where the depth chart is essentially bare after releasing Mason Cole.

But tackle is a more premium position, and this class is so, so good. Mims and Latham, especially, would be incredible complements to Jones in the Steelers tackle group. I don’t know what Khan is going to do, but I’d have a very hard time passing on tackle in the first round.


The Steelers generally have a pretty predictable way of going about their business, even during the transition from Kevin Colbert to Khan as GM. One thing that really stood out this year as different is that the Steelers didn’t use their 45 allotted combine formal meetings with players that have met with extensively in the past.

So Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell and Oregon center Jackson Powers-Johnson, who the team was all over in Mobile, aren’t necessarily off the board. The Steelers are just spreading their efforts around more.


The Steelers have several major needs. They need help and competition for Kenny Pickett at quarterback. They need a slot receiver and an eventual replacement for Diontae Johnson. They need a center and a tackle. They need two more long-term options at each defensive tackle and linebacker. They need an outside cornerback, a slot cornerback, and a strong safety. They even need a punter.

We’ve done a lot of work evaluating the 2024 NFL Draft class and the Steelers’ level of interest in the prospects at each position.

It will be hard to gauge the next step until we see what they do when free agency hits. They only have seven draft picks. There isn’t enough capital there to hit every need. Khan, Andy Weidl and company need to cross some off the list first.