The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new GM. Two, in fact. Omar Khan and Andy Weidl, hopefully the dynamic duo for the next decade beyond. Kevin Colbert’s officially no longer the team’s general manager, technically their first in team history. And I gotta admit, it is weird. Even with an internal hire, it’s a new and brave world we’re stepping into.
The benefit of having the same GM and head coach for 15+ years was, if you followed them closely enough (and you know we did) they became pretty predictable. How they approached free agency, who they drafted, what the roster construction looked like, there was an obvious structure to how the team operated. But with Khan and Weidl, what changes? Something will. Here’s a couple things that might, and to be clear, I’m referring to team philosophy, not the people themselves.
1. Increased Emphasis On Analytics
In his final press conferences, Kevin Colbert all but admitted the next regime was going to care about numbers more than Colbert ever did. Sure, it was there, the team has an analytics department, but it’s sort of like the side salad at a steakhouse. It’s available but no one ever actually orders it.
Pittsburgh’s had one of the smallest analytics department and regularly saw those in that role leave, Karim Kassam leaving for Duolingo – the app that helps you say “where is the bathroom” in Spanish – and Jay Whitmire jumping to the Jets last year.
With a business and numbers guy like Khan, and just generally having younger people who “get” advanced stats more than a pure trust the tape mentality, Pittsburgh should become more analytically focused. How exactly that looks is hard to say because much of that occurs behind the scenes. I certainly could see the team expand its analytics department and perhaps add more established hires as opposed to new faces basically hired out of college, like they did with Will Britt to replace Whitmire (and also won’t advertise the job on TeamWorkOnline, a place where most NFL teams put listings for ticket sales and mascots, not key front office spots).
Of course, Mike Tomlin still has plenty of control here and is an old-soul and old-school so don’t expect Pittsburgh to become the Browns or Ravens. But they should transition to a heavier analytics use than where they’ve been, lagging behind the rest of the league. And maybe they can smartly sprinkle in some numbers to influence Tomlin, the way you put the medicine in applesauce so your kid / dog will eat it.
2. Drafting Small School Players
If your college wasn’t playing in a primetime slot on national television, Kevin Colbert wasn’t interested. It’s hardly an exaggeration either. Here’s a list of all the FCS and below players the Steelers have drafted under him and the years they were selected:
Ricardo Colclough – 2nd Round (Tusculum) 2004
Willie Colon – 4th Round (Hofstra) 2006
Cortez Allen – 4th Round (The Citadel) 2011
Nick Williams – 7th Round (Samford) 2013
Javon Hargrave – 3rd Round (South Carolina State) 2016
Chris Oladokun – 7th Round (South Dakota State) 2021
Six in just 22 draft classes and only two over the last near-decade. Only two on the first two days of the draft and it’s probable some positional coaches banged on the table for these guys to persuade Colbert, like John Mitchell likely did for Hargrave (Mitchell was at his Pro Day). It feels like the miss on Colclough stopped Colbert from really ever pursuing those players again and I believe Colclough was the only Division Two or below player the team ever drafted, the rest coming from the FCS level.
Could that change under Khan / Weidl? It’s hard to be any less frequent. My guess for Colbert straying away from these guys is the difficulty in projecting their NFL success. Guys who didn’t go against top competition and their draft class peers on a regular basis. But it’s possible things change. It’s worth noting Weidl’s Eagles drafted South Dakota State’s Dallas Goedert and North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz in the top two rounds (Weidl didn’t have final say, obviously, but he was part of a culture willing to draft those guys early).
3. In-Draft Trade Philosophy
Kevin Colbert was willing to give up draft picks in offseasons or the middle of the year, especially over the last several seasons (Avery Williamson, Joe Schobert, Vance McDonald, Minkah Fitzpatrick, etc). but during draft weekend, he often stayed put. If anything, he was a bit on the aggressive side and willing to move up, doing so for Devin Bush and Isaiahh Loudermilk over his final few draft classes and nearly doing so to acquire Kenny Pickett.
Trading down was a different story and he rarely made such a move. Only once did it occur in the first round, moving down from # 16 to # 19 in 2001 and still drafting a stud in Casey Hampton. But that’s the only example. Colbert’s reasoning, which he’s admitted several times, was to prevent the team from getting screwed over and not having anyone to pick. So if the team traded down four spots, they had to have four players they really wanted to take. That rarely occurred and so Colbert rarely moved down in the first round.
During his tenure, Colbert made 14 total pick-for-pick trades during draft weekend. Four of those saw him trading down and the last one came all the way back in 2009 when Colbert moved from # 64 overall for a fourth round pick and two future 3’s. Remarkably, Colbert went well over a decade from the last time he traded down at any part of the draft.
Good teams should look to trade down at a high clip. More picks equals more chances to hit on draft picks, more darts to throw at the dartboard. Pittsburgh rarely took that chance and I suspect Khan and Weidl will be much more open to the idea.
4. The Great Unknown
The final change is… I don’t know. Something unexpected. The “Colbert rules” that have been so ironclad and so easy to follow and now… maybe it remains the same? Some of them will, I’m sure, but finding out which is hard to do. We don’t know what we don’t know.
Khan is his own man and doesn’t have to follow what Colbert did or what he would want him to do. Khan has his own ideas, insight, and story, and Weidl is coming from the outside with no in-depth knowledge of how Colbert operated. Will the Steelers still keep six defensive linemen on the roster like they do every year? Will draft prospects need to have squeaky clean character as they did under Colbert’s last 5+ years? All good questions. All answers we don’t yet have.
There’s going to be surprises and things we don’t expect along the way. A time where we all say Well that sure is a new approach.
We’re going to have to sit back and watch it unfold. It’s one-part scary, one-part exciting, which is a fair way to sum up all the change that’s occurred these last four months.