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5 for Friday: What will Khan and company do for encore?

The NFL Scouting Combine will kick off next week, and for the first time since training camp last summer we'll get to hear from Steelers general manager Omar Khan and what he has to say about the direction of the team.

Khan and assistant GM Andy Weidl don't speak to the media during the season, much the same way we don't hear from team president Art Rooney II until the season is completed. The task of being the voice of the team during the season falls on head coach Mike Tomlin.

But as the NFL prepares to head into free agency and a new league year starting March 13, the front office takes center stage.

Khan and company showed they were adept last season at being active on the free agent market without being frivolous. The Steelers signed more free agents in 2023 than they had at any time since true free agency began in 2023.

And while many of those free agent pieces were signed for depth – with a few notable exceptions – as we saw last season, much of that depth was very necessary.

Of the 10 outside free agents signed, the only ones who didn't wind up starting at least one game were defensive linemen Armon Watts and Breiden Fehoko. And defensive back Patrick Peterson and guard Isaac Seumalo were two of just three Steelers to play more than 1,000 snaps in 2023.

The signings were only part of it. Khan and company also won the draft, putting together one of 2023's top classes.

A piece on last week ranked the Steelers' 2023 rookie class as the second-best in the league, behind only Houston. And Houston had the second and third picks in the draft, it was going to be hard to surpass that one.

While much of the talk this offseason has focused on the Steelers' quarterback position, if Khan and company have another offseason in 2024 like the one they did in 2023, the franchise will continue to take steps forward.

• It was announced this week that the NFL and the Big 12 are launching a Big 12 Pro Day on which all of the draft eligible players from the conference's schools will get together for one big workout and medical checkout.

The combined pro day will take place in Frisco, Texas, and will be the first single conference pro day.

There are obvious positives and negatives for what is planned to be a multi-day event starting March 27.

It's nice to have everyone in one spot. Teams won't have to pick and choose whether they attend, for example, iowa State's pro day or the one at Oklahoma State if they happened to be on the same day.

And they'll be able to judge workouts on the same field under the same circumstances.

But if you're a team hoping for one-on-one interaction with a player, that could be somewhat limited by this format. Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, for example, likes to take a prospect or prospects from the same school to dinner and see how they interact with each other. That could be more difficult in this setting.

But the event is worth a try.

At the same time, these all-encompassing events shouldn't replace the NFL Scouting Combine. They should only be used to supplement that event.

• Longtime Patriots star special teams player Matthew Slater retired earlier this week. Slater was selected to the Pro Bowl 10 times in 16 seasons as a special teams player.

Former Patriots head coach Bill Belichick called him the "best core special teamer in NFL history."

And you can bet in a few years, there will be a push to put Slater in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, much the same way Devin Hester, a fabulous return man, was voted into the Hall of Fame this year. Or when, a few years ago, there was a push to put Steve Tasker in the Hall of Fame as a special teams player.

Thing is, there are plenty of players who were great players who became too valuable to continue to be used on special teams. 

Former Steelers Hines Ward and James Harrison are among that group. Both were outstanding special teams players early in their careers before they became stars at a position.

This is not to downplay the careers of a player such as Slater, Hester of Tasker. They were great. But they also weren't good enough to handle playing a position in the NFL.

• That Ward and Harrison can't even get into the final 15 to be discussed for consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while Hester made it this year is a bit of a travesty.

Hester might be the greatest punt returner in NFL history, but he scored 37 career touchdowns, including 14 on punt returns and five on kick returns.

He had 255 career receptions and started 47 career games.

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

Ward had 1,000 career receptions for 12,083 yards and scored 86 touchdowns. He was a Super Bowl MVP. Harrison, meanwhile, was NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2008 and author of the greatest defensive play in Super Bowl history in addition to being one of the NFL's most feared pass rushers.

Hester was great. But if you wanted him to not be a factor in a game, all you had to do was kick the ball away from him. There was no escaping Ward or Harrison.

They were full-time players and were great all-around players. As a specialist, Hester played 20 snaps per game -- at most.

• With just 22 percent of kickoffs returned in 2023 thanks to the new rules that allowed for fair catches or touchbacks being placed at the 25-yard line, concussions on kickoffs fell from 20 in 2022 to just eight last season.

Overall, there were 219 diagnosed concussions in the NFL last season, a slight increase from the 2013 suffered in 2022. But it was still fewer than the 281 suffered three years ago.

And those concussions were diagnosed from 422 players who were evaluated, meaning 203 players were checked for a traumatic head injury but were found to not have suffered a concussion.