The Pittsburgh Steelers have a new general manager. Two, in fact. Omar Khan and Andy Weidl will hopefully be the dynamic duo for the next decade. Kevin Colbert is officially no longer the team’s general manager, technically their first in team history. And I have to admit it’s weird. Even with internal hiring, it’s a brave new world we’re entering.
The advantage of having the same general manager and head coach for over 15 years was that if you followed them closely enough (and you know we did), they became quite predictable. How they approached free agency, who they drafted, what roster building looked like, there was an obvious structure to how the team worked. But with Khan and Weidl, what changes? Something will. Here are a few things that could, and to be clear, I’m referring to the philosophy of the team, not the people themselves.
1. Increased focus on analytics
In his last press conferences, Kevin Colbert almost admitted that the next regime would care more about numbers than Colbert ever did. Sure it was there, the team has an analytics department, but it’s kind of like the side salad in a steakhouse. It is available but no one ever orders it.
Pittsburgh had one of the smallest analytics departments and regularly saw those in that position leave, with 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 usually young people who “get” advanced stats more than a pure trust the band mentality, Pittsburgh should become more analytical. Exactly what that looks like is hard to say because a lot of it happens behind the scenes. I could definitely see the team expand their analytics department and maybe add more established hires as opposed to basically new faces hired out of college, like they did with Will Britt to replace Whitmire ( nor will they advertise the job on TeamWorkOnline, a place where most NFL teams put listings for ticket sales and mascots, not major front office spots).
Of course, Mike Tomlin still has a lot of control here and is old soul and old school, so don’t expect Pittsburgh to become the Browns or the Ravens. But they should move to heavier analytical use than where they were, lagging behind the rest of the league. And maybe they can cleverly sprinkle in numbers to influence Tomlin, the way you put medicine in applesauce for your child/dog to eat.
2. Writing small school players
If your college wasn’t playing in a prime time slot on national television, Kevin Colbert wasn’t interested. This is not an exaggeration either. Here’s a list of every player from FCS and below the Steelers drafted under him and the years they were drafted:
Ricardo Colclough- 2nd round (Tusculum) 2004
Willie Colon – 4th Round (Hofstra) 2006
Cortez Allen – 4th Tower (The Citadel) 2011
Nick Williams – 7th round (Samford) 2013
Javon Hargrave – 3rd Round (South Carolina State) 2016
Chris Oladokun- Round 7 (South Dakota State) 2021
Six in just 22 draft classes and just two in the past decade. Only two the first two days of the draft and it’s likely some positional coaches knocked on the table to get those guys to persuade Colbert, like John Mitchell probably did for Hargrave (Mitchell was on his Pro Day). Seems like Colclough’s misfire prevented Colbert from really chasing those players again and I believe Colclough was the only Division Two or lower player the team ever drafted, the rest coming from the FCS level.
Could this change under Khan/Weidl? It’s hard to be anyone less frequent. I guess Colbert’s move away from these guys is the difficulty in projecting their success in the NFL. Guys who haven’t regularly faced top competitors and their peers in the draft class. But it is possible that things will change. It should be noted that the Weidl Eagles drafted Dallas Goedert from South Dakota State and Carson Wentz from North Dakota State in the first two rounds (Weidl obviously didn’t have the last laugh, but he was part of a culture ready to recruit these guys early).
3. Draft business philosophy
Kevin Colbert was willing to give up draft picks in the offseason or mid-year, especially in later seasons (Avery Williamson, Joe Schobert, Vance McDonald, Minkah Fitzpatrick, etc.). but during the draft weekend, he often stayed put. On the contrary, he was a little aggressive and ready to progress, doing so for Devin Bush and Isaiahh Loudermilk during his last draft courses and almost doing it to acquire Kenny Pickett.
Trading was another story and he rarely made such a move. It only happened once in the first round, dropping from No. 16 to No. 19 in 2001 and still drafting a stallion in Casey Hampton. But this is the only example. Colbert’s reasoning, which he has repeatedly confessed, was to keep the team from getting screwed and having no one to pick. So if the team fell four places, they had to have four players they really wanted to take. This rarely happened and therefore Colbert rarely backed down in the first round.
During his tenure, Colbert made 14 pick-for-pick transactions in total during the draft weekend. Four of them saw him traded and the last came back in 2009 when Colbert went from No. 64 overall to a fourth-round pick and two future 3s. Remarkably, Colbert spent more than a decade since the last time he traded in any part of the draft.
Good teams should seek to negotiate at a high level. More picks equals more chances of hitting draft picks, more darts to throw at the dartboard. Pittsburgh has rarely taken that chance and I suspect Khan and Weidl will be much more open to the idea.
4. The Great Unknown
The last change is… I don’t know. Something inexplicable. The “Colbert rules” that were so strict and so easy to follow and now…maybe they stay the same? Some of them will, I’m sure, but figuring out which one 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 like him to do. Khan has his own ideas, insight, and history, and Weidl comes in from the outside without any in-depth knowledge of how Colbert works. Will the Steelers still keep six defensive linemen on the roster like they do every year? Will the draft prospects have to have a no-nonsense character like they have under Colbert’s last 5 years? All good questions. All the answers we don’t have yet.
There are going to be surprises and things we don’t expect along the way. A time when we all say it sure is a new approach.
We’re going to have to sit back and watch it unfold. It’s part scary, part exciting, which is a good way to sum up all the changes that have happened in the past four months.
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