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Tomlin, Khan excited about options for Steelers in 'deep' draft

With three picks in the first 49 selections and four picks in the top 80 of the 2023 NFL Draft later this week, the Steelers have an opportunity to add quality talent to their roster.

And they've spent more time and effort than ever before trying to make sure they take advantage of every possibility as they zero in on this draft, which begins Thursday and runs through Saturday. The Steelers have seven overall picks in the seven-round draft.

It's all about being ready for the NFL's busiest week of talent acquisition.

With the scouting circuit back to normal after a couple of years of COVID-19 restrictions, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and first-year general manager Omar Khan went back to the previous norm of hitting the all-star games, pro day circuit, NFL Scouting Combine and pre-draft visits. But some of the things learned during the pandemic also allowed for the team to get to know prospects even better than before.

For example, Khan said Monday the team is continuing to utilize video calls to meet with even more prospects than ever before.

"We spent a lot of time getting to know a lot of players not only on the field but off the field," said Khan, who will be going through his first NFL Draft later this week after replacing longtime GM Kevin Colbert last May. "Once the season ended, for me it started at the Hula Bowl – had the opportunity to interview several players there. Coach and I got to Mobile (Ala.), we probably interviewed 40 to 50 players formally and another, you know 20 To 30 players, probably more than that informally.

"And you know, over the last few days we've been doing a lot of Zoom calls, trying to be diligent and get to know as many of these guys as possible, and once I leave here, we've got a couple more Zoom calls this afternoon."

In what both Khan and Tomlin described as a "deep draft," the more information you have, the better.

The Steelers own the 17th pick in the first round, the 32nd pick to start the second round thanks to their midseason trade of wide receiver Chase Claypool last year to the Bears, while also holding onto their picks at 49 and 80 in the second and third rounds.

As they typically do, the team will have contacted every other NFL team in the time leading up to Thursday regarding moves up or down – though that doesn't necessarily mean anything will come to fruition from that.

But with the 32nd pick marking the first selection of Day 2 of the draft, the Steelers expect the phones to be ringing pretty consistently between the time the first round wraps up Thursday night and the start of the second day of the draft on Friday.

"We're excited about it," Tomlin said. "We've been talking about it. I think the thing that we're least familiar with is the amount of calls that we will be or could be getting. And that's where we spend our time. It's just talking about how do we organize, and how do we get prepared for receiving the amount of interest that pick could have and that's a good and exciting possibility for us."

The Steelers have positioned themselves in the offseason to not have any glaring needs with a busy offseason on the free agent market, adding a number of veteran players at various positions, including the acquisition of veteran wide receiver Allen Robinson last week in a swap of seventh-round draft picks with the Los Angeles Rams.

Those moves have all been made in an effort to ensure the team isn't pigeon-holed into making picks at any single position. And Tomlin believes that has been a success.

"We've been able to do some things in free agency that I really feel like provides a clean slate for us from a draft perspective," Tomlin said. "We don't have any glaring needs and so we're able to look at the board in totality and not be swayed inappropriately in any specific way."

And in a draft such as this, that could be a big deal.

When asked where the strength of this draft lies, Khan ticked off very nearly every position group. And Tomlin noted that is largely because COVID-19 allowed for many players to stay in college and get another year of eligibility, adding to the depth of this particular draft.

"We're not opposed to moving up in an effort to pinpoint someone that might be special, but we do truly believe that there's great depth in this draft," Tomlin said. "And so we're ready and comfortable for whatever. And I'll be really specific why this is why we feel this as a deep draft. I think it's another by byproduct of COVID. 

"You notice there's some veteran guys in this draft. I mean, there's guys with six years of college football playing experience and five years of college football playing experience. And I just think that that's one of the reasons why it is so deep. It's just another byproduct of COVID."

R*obinson a welcome addition:* The Steelers swapped seventh-round picks for Robinson last week with the Rams and Khan said that move ticked off another of the team's goals in the offseason.

"(We're) excited to have him," Khan said. "Early on, when coach and I got together after the season, mapped out a plan on what we wanted 2023 to look like, one of the things we were keying on was acquiring a veteran receiver. Excited that we were able to get it all done with Allen."

Robinson, who is heading into his 10th NFL season, is a three-time 1,000-yard receiver who was a second-round pick of the Jaguars out of Penn State.

Tomlin recalled meeting with Robinson in the pre-draft process in 2014.

"He is an example of our general free agent interest," Tomlin said. "It goes all the way back to when he was at Penn State. Kevin Colbert and I spent a great deal of time with he and his family through his draft process. He was a Diaper Dandy. A 20-year-old when he came into the draft. We held him in high regard. We liked his football character, we liked his talents, we liked his upside. We followed him throughout his NFL journey. The interest still remains.

"Those are generally the stories, that's the framing of the people that we generally do free agent business with."

F*irst-time through:* This will mark Khan's first time through the draft process as the team's general manager. He was previously involved in the draft process as part of the team's front office as the chief negotiator of contracts, but has noted things are a little different now.

"You try to learn something every day, new experiences, talking to new people," Khan said. "It's a lot easier to get ahold of (Alabama head coach) Nick Saban to meet one on one when you're in this role as opposed to my other role. You learn something every day.

"Coach used the word 'fun' earlier. That's the right word. It's been a lot of work. We think we've been very diligent. The process has been tremendous. At the end of the day it's just been fun."

That being said, Khan can't wait for Thursday to get here.

"I'd say it's obviously exciting," Khan said. "It's a dream come true for me to be in this position. Been dreaming about it for a long time. But I feel ready. I wish the draft -- I wish I was leaving here to go make our picks. But exciting. I think we're ready."

Khan said the Steelers have kept about "85 percent" of things the same as how they did them with Colbert. But Tomlin noted some changes in the way they do things aren't bad, they're just different.

"I think a cool thing is we haven't been running away from the differences of transition," Tomlin said. "We've been open to it. Just like I was talking a year ago, we were transitioning at quarterback, the uneasiness, the feeling that could be positive fuel for us. We're going through a transition here in a significant role. We'd be remiss if we didn't have urgency about it and also just be open to the differences that could help us improve."

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