The Omar Khan Report Card

To kick off this week, when the Pittsburgh Steelers begin OTAs and get back on the field as a full team for the first time, let’s take a quick look back at these last couple of months. Because oh boy, they have been busy. This has arguably been one of the team’s most non-stop offseasons in team history with a seemingly constant cycle of news. It’s Omar Khan’s first full season as GM has been fun to watch and we’ll take a look at the overall themes of it.

Here, I’ll break down the themes of the offseason I like and don’t like about what Khan as done. As the headline says, it’s a report card of Khan’s job as GM this year. Of course, the results this fall are all that matter but here are my thoughts so far on the moves he’s made.

What I Like

Having a Clear Plan With Teeth

Something I touched on earlier this month. Pittsburgh may have been trying to cobble together a plan the last two seasons but there was no coherent identity of who the Steelers were and their plan to win. Building off their second-half success in 2022, the Steelers are going all-in on their run-first mentality to play bully ball while bringing in equally physical players at corner. It may not work as well as hoped but Pittsburgh knows exactly who it wants to be and every offseason move reinforces the thought.

Convincing And Locking Up His QBs

I was surprised (and wrong) to see Mason Rudolph return and Mitch Trubisky sign his extension. I don’t know what Omar Khan is saying to these guys to convince them to return/extend but it’s working. Favorable contracts to stabilize the quarterback room this year and beyond are shrewd moves to protect this team from an injury. They’re not headliner moves but they’re important ones.

Nose To The Grindstone Scouting Nature

While Khan differs from Kevin Colbert in some ways, he still was taught by the man and other influential scouting figures like Bill Nunn and Ron Hughes. And those guys didn’t just watch tape in their office and crunch the analytics about Breakout Age or RAS. Khan might be more open to that but he hit the scouting trail just like Colbert did, travelling to seven Pro Days along with the Hula Bowl, Senior Bowl, HBCU Combine, and the Indianapolis NFL Combine. No question, the man put in the work.

Working Draft Trades

Draft weekend felt like a success and the Steelers’ class was universally praised, even if we know it doesn’t mean much compared to evaluating a class 2-3 years from now. While the board broke well for the Steelers, Joey Porter Jr., Darnell Washington, and Cory Trice Jr. all falling into their laps, I love the moves Khan made. Only giving up a fourth rounder to jump the New York Jets for OT Broderick Jones and then recouping that fourth-round pick by trading down from #80 in the third round to #93 and getting #132 back. All while still netting Washington at #93. It worked out beautifully.

Humility, Kevin Colbert’s Greatest Trait

The most important one of them all. Football is a game of ego and some of that is healthy and required. The NFL is the game at its highest level and you better have some confident people in that room. But there’s a line to walk and Khan is carrying Colbert’s best quality. His humility. It’s about the Steelers, the goal of winning, making sure everyone is taken care of. Khan doesn’t want or care about the praise and has deflected it in his interviews.

He knows he might not be the most football-savvy guy in the room. He’s leaned on Mike Tomlin and Assistant GM Andy Weidl, whose voice has very much been heard, and delegated much of his old tasks of contracts to Cole Marcoux. Being a GM means leading and delegating and Khan does both well while still subjecting control over the situation.

Willingness To Churn The Roster

Though common for new GMs, the Steelers weren’t a normal situation. A strong and stable organization that wasn’t looking to tear things down to the studs, Khan could’ve made tweaks to the roster and not been crushed for it. If the Steelers would’ve signed a couple of depth free agents and still had the draft class they did, Khan would’ve received plenty of praise. But he’s willing to take chances, make moves, knowing all of them won’t work, in an effort to improve the roster. That’s all three-phases: offenses, defense, and special teams and starters and depth.

Exploring Every Avenue To Improve The Team

Perhaps not unique to Khan, Colbert did it too, but there wasn’t a road Khan didn’t go down to try and make the team better. Free agency is the obvious route, signing Patrick Peterson, Isaac Seumalo, and many others. But he also traded (WR Allen Robinson II), claimed players off waivers (P Braden Mann, DL Manny Jones), traded up for players (OT Broderick Jones) signed tryout guys (RB Alfonzo Graham), and signed XFL players (WR Hakeem Butler).

Though only one of the team’s 33 tryout players signed, they came from all walks of life. NFL veterans playing new positions (TE turned LS Nick Boyle), your standard rookies, guys who didn’t play college football (DL Gabe Oladipo), and even a kicker from a Steelers-led kicking tryout in Mexico, Alfredo Gachuz. It’s an all-encompassing nature to building up a 90-man that I appreciate.

What I Don’t Like

Change For The Sake of Change at ILB, No Draft Investment

Up front, there’s no question it’s easier to praise Khan’s moves than to criticize. But a couple things I wasn’t crazy about. I respect Khan for completely overhauling an inside linebacker room that needed it. Still, it sorta feels like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Pittsburgh’s been on a rotating free agent inside linebacker cycle ever since losing Ryan Shazier in Cincinnati and this year was no different, inking Cole Holcomb and Elandon Roberts to deals (and showing interest in Kwon Alexander). They’re not high-level names and probably not long-term options who will be gone in two years.

At some point, this team is going to have to invest draft capital in the position. And I know it failed with Devin Bush and Buddy Johnson was a forgotten about whiff. But this team stills builds through the draft above all else and they haven’t done that enough at the position.

No UDFA Model Change

My strongest critique of Khan. Despite the Steelers’ changes, they’re still paying undrafted players pennies. They’ll claim about precedent and dead money to guys they didn’t like enough to draft but they’re woefully uncompetitive on the UDFA market. Pittsburgh’s one of the few holdouts to only offer signing bonuses instead of partial base salary guarantees and they only ever use up about half of their allotted signing bonus space. It means they miss out on all the top UDFAs who could help round out the roster.

Yes, the team still finds occasional gems like RB Jaylen Warren. But if you look at the totality of classes over the last five years, it’s been really poor. Not everyone will be a hit but there’s large group of guys who don’t even make it all the way through camp. For a team built on the backs of UDFAs from Donnie Shell and James Harrison to Willie Parker and Ramon Foster, the Steelers need to reconsider their strategy. There should be no aspect of roster-building they’re uncompetitive in.

Medical Risks

If there is a risk Pittsburgh took with the players it brought in, it’s medical. Nothing that is as concerning as when the team signed TE Ladarius Green, a dud of a deal, but Allen Robinson and Cole Holcomb are coming off foot surgeries. Robinson turns 30 in August, Holcomb 27 in July. In the draft, TE Darnell Washington and CB Cory Trice Jr. fell due to medical concerns. For Trice’s Day Two talent to nearly cause him to go undrafted means the medical must be serious and a fear shared by many teams.

Nothing here is over the line and even if any of these players fail due to medical, it won’t kill the franchise. But medical was a recurring theme and in the back of my mind with some of these players added to the roster. Pittsburgh’s track record with medical risks haven’t been great over the years (Green, Brandon Boykin, William Jackson III), and hopefully it doesn’t bite them again.

The Counterculture Risk And Questions Over Trust In Kenny Pickett

A little long-winded title but here’s the point. Pittsburgh is making the calculation the best way to beat Kansas City, Buffalo, Cincinnati, the potent offenses with top-tier quarterbacks, is to chart a different course. To run the ball, dominate time of possession, and keep those quarterbacks off the field. The idea is understandable. But is it sustainable? Pittsburgh is building a competitive team but I don’t know if this method can truly take you far in the playoffs. Those potent teams can score in an instant and Pittsburgh’s offensive approach still isn’t made to score a lot of points.

Beyond that, while Kenny Pickett isn’t Mahomes/Burrow/Allen, he is their first-round quarterback the team publicly has lots of faith in. Actions will speak louder than words and they’ll need to open up the passing game this year. Take the training wheels off, let Pickett make plays. There’s more than enough weapons for him to throw to. And this ball-control style seems ultraconservative for a team that believes it has its answer at quarterback. It’s a San Francisco model and it could work but the 49ers don’t have to face this murderer’s row of QBs in the AFC. Kenny Pickett’s going to have to win some games this season. And the Steelers will need to let him.

Final Thoughts

I suppose I should give this offseason a grade since this is a “report card.” Though it’s arbitrary, I’ll give it a solid “A” for the year. But all that matters is what happens from September through January (and ideally, a February Super Bowl) or else all the good feelings of this offseason will be long forgotten.

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