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5 for Friday: Khan's goal remains Super Bowl

The 2023 offseason was the first for Omar Khan as Steelers general manager after replacing Kevin Colbert following his retirement after the 2022 NFL Draft.

And Khan obviously had a plan in place to build the team's depth, adding a number of veterans in free agency who weren't necessarily starters, but could be called upon if and when injuries hit the Steelers during the season.

Despite that forward thinking, the Steelers were hit hard by injuries in 2023 at both safety and inside linebacker. As Khan enters his second offseason in charge of the Steelers' personnel, mapping out a plan for 2024 has taken center stage.

And one of the big parts of that is sitting down with head coach Mike Tomlin and new offensive coordinator Arthur Smith, who was hired this offseason, to figure out a plan of attack for free agency, which begins March 13, and the draft in April.

"We're having conversations with Arthur, it's been great," Khan said this week at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. "We've been engaging frequently and coach, Arthur and I, we've been talking about the offense and what the vision is."

One of the interesting things with coaching changes, whether it be at head coach or at a coordinator position is how that new person sees the current personnel and how they either mold the offense to that group or how they begin to shift personnel to run a different style of offense.

The key is acquiring as many good players as possible and working around them.

And the Steelers know what they want to be.

"I don't know from the mentality standpoint if anything's changed," Khan said. "We like being a physical football team."

The 2023 offseason, including the draft, showed a real commitment to that.

The Steelers added offensive linemen Isaac Seumalo and Nate Herbig in free agency, then brought in offensive tackle Broderick Jones and massive tight end Darnell Washington in the draft on offense. Defensively, tackle Keeanu Benton and big cornerback Joey Porter were acquired in the draft, while the linebacker corps was totally revamped in free agency.

This offseason will be the next step for Khan and company. Last offseason was largely a hit and the Steelers saw an improvement, going 10-7 and earning a playoff spot.

But the ultimate goal was not reached. And Khan will take that thought into this offseason.

"I felt really good about how the guys improved every week as they played," Khan said of his first draft class. "But I sat and watched the Super Bowl at home like everybody else and watched Kansas City win the Super Bowl. And you know, that's not where we want to be. So we have to be better. You know, everyone's got to be better, myself included. So the goal is for someone to be watching us in the Super Bowl."

• The retirement of Bill Hillgrove on Thursday after 30 years as the play-by-play person in the radio booth for the Steelers is the passing of an era.

Hillgrove replaced longtime play-by-play announcer Jack Fleming in the booth next to Myron Cope in 1994 before Cope retired in 2005.

Then, it was Hillgrove and Tunch Ilkin, who had joined the booth a few years prior, on the calls for Steelers games. Eventually, current color analyst Craig Wolfley joined Hillgrove and Ilkin on those calls.

Hillgrove called four Super Bowls for the Steelers, games he still cherishes.

"We went 2-2, so I came up short," Hillgrove said with a chuckle on Steelers Nation Radio. "But two is pretty good."

Unfortunately, Fleming, Cope and Ilkin are no longer with us. But Hilgrove is, even if we won't hear his gentle baritone any longer on the calls of Steelers games.

"When it's time, it's time," Hillgrove said.

With Hillgrove, it was always time to turn on the radio and relax while you listened to the game. And it was always about the game itself for Hillgrove.

And like Fleming's call on the Immaculate Reception, Hillgrove's calls on, for example, Santonio Holmes' game-winning touchdown catch in Super Bowl 53 will live on forever.

Now, it's his turn to relax and listen – though he'll still do Pitt basketball and football games. But his style in painting a picture of what was occurring on the field will be missed by Steelers fans.

• The Steelers went the free agent route when revamping the inside linebacker position a year ago. And they felt really good about what they had acquired at the position coming out of training camp with veterans Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Kwon Alexander and an improving Mark Robinson at the position.

"I remember coach (Mike) Tomlin and I leaving (training camp in) Latrobe, we were like 'Man, we feel really good about this inside linebacker position.' We had three capable starters in Kwon and Cole and Elandon and then we felt really good about where Mark Rob was," Khan said. "And then all of a sudden you get hit by these injuries, and next thing you know you're scrambling and you're grabbing guys, like coach says, off the couch you're looking for players you just don't know."

Holcomb had a serious leg injury midway through last season and Alexander suffered an Achilles' tendon injury a week later, leaving the Steelers scrambling the rest of the year.

Khan said there's still not a timeline on a potential return by Holcomb, who is under contract for 2024, though he is expected back at some point, while Alexander is slated to become a free agent.

"He's working hard. I wish I had a better idea of when he's going to be ready to go," Khan said of Holcomb. "I just don't know. It's still early. He's working hard. We are optimistic and you know that he's going to be back at some point."

Roberts was the glue that held everything together last season at inside linebacker. If Holcomb can return and the Steelers can add another player at that position either through the draft or free agency, perhaps Tomlin and Khan will feel good about that position again in 2024.

• The draft will be pretty wide open for the Steelers this year, with the team not necessarily needing to take a player at any single position.

And while many drafts have 10 to 15 players who are considered sure-fire first-round picks, this year's draft is deeper in that regard.

"I have 24 players who have legitimate first-round grades," said Tony Pauline, draft analyst for Pro Football Network. "That's more than usual."

That's encouraging because the Steelers, who have the 20th pick in the draft, are sure to have multiple options available to them in the first round. They also have their picks in the second and third rounds, and two fourth-round picks, which could allow Khan and the Steelers additional flexibility.

It's not the situation the Steelers had a year ago, when they had two second-round picks, including the first pick of the round, but it's still good capital to have available in a pretty strong year.

"This is really a good draft," said Khan. You have offensive lineman, the quarterbacks, the big guys both on the offensive side and defensive side, the inside linebackers, there's some playmakers at the receiver position, some really good corners. It's a good draft and I'm excited. I've been fortunate. My first draft was really talented, and heading into my second one, I feel really good about the talent that's out there."

One of the other interesting parts of this process is the position flexibility the Steelers have up front.

Jones broke into the lineup at right tackle, for example, after doing nearly all of his work in training camp at left tackle.

But the Steelers still view him as a future left tackle.

"Versatility on the offensive line is important and he proved he could play right tackle, but he was drafted to be a left tackle and eventually he will be a left tackle," Khan said.

When that happens could be determined by this draft.

Dale Lolley is co-host of "SNR Drive" on Steelers Nation Radio. Subscribe to the podcast here: Apple Podcast | iHeart Podcast

The same goes at center, where Khan said Herbig is the current plan, though he's started more games at guard in his career.

Defensively, Benton played nose tackle last season as a rookie, but certainly has the pass rush skills to kick outside as a defensive end.

That versatility won't pigeon hole the Steelers into having to take, for example, a center in the draft or sign a potential starter in free agency. The same could be said on the defensive line. They could take another defensive linemen in the draft or sign one. But they don't have to do it. And because of Benton's flexibility, they could add a nose tackle or an end.

It's a good spot in which to be.

"You can never have enough good players at a specific position," Khan said. "I was taught that a long time ago and that's kind of the approach I take. This is a good draft. There's some good players out there, and I'm excited about the options that we might have at 20, or if there's opportunity to move up or down."

• Cam Heyward had a rough 2023 season with injuries. In fact, he announced on social media recently that he had just completed a surgery to help him get right after the season.

But that doesn't mean he won't be part of the Steelers' plans moving forward. I fact, quite the opposite is true.

"I'm excited to have Cam as part of this for another season," Khan said. "Him being named Walter Payton Man of the Year, that's really a great honor for him. And it's long overdue. He's tremendous. He represents us as well as anybody I've ever met."

That being said, Khan did acknowledge the Steelers will have to treat Heyward differently moving forward as he gets up in age.

"The reality is that he's going to be 35 years old, so we've got to be careful how we manage his reps. We're going to be smart about it with Cam. He's at the point where we have to be smart about how we bring him back. We're not going to rush it. He doesn't need to learn the defense. He can probably teach it."