What are the Steelers' top NFL scouting combine priorities?

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PITTSBURGH -- Beginning Monday, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL's other 31 franchises will descend on Indianapolis for a week of evaluating the best prospects of the 2024 draft class at the NFL scouting combine -- and maybe take a break for shrimp cocktail at St. Elmo's.

Coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Omar Khan will arrive at the combine in a frustratingly familiar place: a tenuous situation at quarterback, an offensive line that needs to be upgraded and a secondary that could use some depth. The Steelers already got a head start on scouting this year's top prospects at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, paying particular attention to the offensive linemen in attendance, and they'll pick up where they left off when they arrive in Indianapolis -- along with adding a couple of other items to their to-do list.

Put offensive line prospects on 'center' stage

The Steelers upgraded their offensive line not only by signing offensive guard Isaac Seumalo in last year's free agency, but also in trading up to select tackle Broderick Jones at No. 14 in the 2023 NFL draft. Though Jones had rookie growing pains, the Steelers' ground game noticeably improved after he took over for Chukwuma Okorafor in Week 9. Though Jones touted his versatility, he's a natural left tackle. The Steelers could use an early pick on a tackle to pair with Jones, bumping Jones to left over Dan Moore Jr. and inserting a rookie at right when he's ready, similar to Jones' path in 2023.

The class of offensive tackles is deep, but picking at No. 20 overall means the Steelers will miss out on the top tier of tackles, including Notre Dame's Joe Alt and Penn State's Olumuyiwa Fashanu -- unless they trade up for the second year in a row. Georgia tackle Amarius Mims, Alabama's JC Latham and versatile G/OT Troy Fautanu from Washington could be realistic targets if the Steelers stand pat in their draft position.

But perhaps even more pressing than adding an elite tackle is upgrading at center. Veteran center Mason Cole was inconsistent in 2023, and his bad snaps turned into fumbles and stalled drives. Cole is a leader in the locker room and a hard worker on the field, but the Steelers badly need better play from center in 2024, especially as the team sorts out its quarterback position.

Cole put in extra work before practice and games, but at some point, the team needs to evaluate outside options and the most obvious is through the draft. The Steelers should keep an eye on Oregon's Jackson Powers-Johnson, Duke's Graham Barton, West Virginia's Zach Frazier and Georgia's Sedrick Van Pran.

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Gain QB clarity

As much as the combine is a chance for teams to get an in-depth look at the 2024 prospects, it's an equally important opportunity to explore other avenues of team building. Officially, trades and free agent deals can't be executed or agreed to for a couple of more weeks, but with that many team officials and agents in the same place, it's inevitable some informal conversations will take place.

With the release of Mitch Trubisky and the impending free agency of Mason Rudolph, the Steelers have just one quarterback on the 2024 roster: Kenny Pickett. Though Tomlin committed to Pickett resuming his QB1 status, he also vowed to bring in competition for the third-year quarterback. But the level of that competition is unclear.

The Steelers manufactured a training camp quarterback competition between Trubisky and Pickett in 2022, but Trubisky was almost certainly on a trajectory to be the Week 1 starter throughout camp. The Steelers firmly believe competition brings out Pickett's best intangible qualities, but they have to walk a fine line of giving him competition, while also expressing confidence in him to be their future.

Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields would be an obvious upgrade at the position, but acquiring him -- even if for a relatively small amount of draft capital -- would be out of character for a team that prefers to draft and develop its quarterbacks. The team did break from tradition two years ago when it aggressively pursued and signed Trubisky early in free agency, but that move was largely a bust. They drafted Pickett less than two months later, and the offense struggled when Trubisky started for an injured Pickett late in 2023.

Acquiring a player like Fields, Russell Wilson or free agent Kirk Cousins would seemingly signal the team wants to move away from a future with Pickett as the starter, and that would be premature in the typically patient Steelers' timeline. With a new offensive coordinator, the Steelers want to give their 2022 first-round pick every opportunity to prove he's capable of being a starting quarterback -- especially with a fifth-year option decision due in May 2025.

That means bringing back Rudolph is a priority, but with Rudolph likely to explore interest from around the league, the team should also consider middle-tier impending free agents including Jacoby Brissett, Gardner Minshew and Ryan Tannehill and evaluate 2024 draft prospects like Oregon's Bo Nix, South Carolina's Spencer Rattler, Florida State's Jordan Travis and Notre Dame's Sam Hartman.

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Build on 2023 draft success

Grading a draft class after one season is premature, but the early returns of Khan's first class as general manager are solid. Not only did he manage to move up for a game-changing tackle, but he also turned an extra second-round pick -- acquired in a trade that offloaded wide receiver Chase Claypool to the Bears -- into Joey Porter Jr., a potential No. 1 corner and defensive rookie of the year finalist. And later in the second round, the Steelers snagged defensive tackle Keeanu Benton, who was promising in extended snaps following injuries to Cameron Heyward and Montravius Adams.

Fourth-round linebacker Nick Herbig showed significant promise, too, as he rotated onto the field more late in the season and recorded three sacks. Seventh-rounder Spencer Anderson got limited action primarily on special teams, while sixth-round cornerback Cory Trice Jr. suffered a season-ending injury in training camp. Outside of Trice, every rookie in the 2024 draft class, which also included tight end Darnell Washington, saw game action, and both Trice and Anderson could be in line for larger roles in 2024.

Now, Khan has an opportunity to follow up on that draft class with an encore performance in 2024, with the Steelers holding at least seven picks in the draft including two fourth-round selections. In addition to evaluating the offensive line and quarterback groups, the Steelers should pay close attention to the cornerbacks, safeties, inside linebacker and defensive line groups.

To get cap compliant, the Steelers could part ways with veterans like defensive lineman Larry Ogunjobi, who could save the team $6.2 million if released, or cornerback/safety Patrick Peterson, who would save $6.8 million if released. Both players, though, are veterans and give the Steelers good and necessary depth. To move on from them, the Steelers need to restock at those positions through the draft.