Done Deals: How Omar Khan And The Steelers Changed Their Business Model

Alex Highsmith’s contract is signed, sealed and delivered. Out is any chance of a holdout or hold-in, an eleventh-hour deal, a camp story that takes the focus off the pitch. Highsmith penning a long-term deal came as no surprise. It would always be done before Week 1 against the San Francisco 49ers on September 10th. The most interesting part is the timing of the deal, which was inked Wednesday, a week before the team reports for training camp.

It’s a similar story to Minkah Fitzpatrick, who signed his then-record deal in June 2022. A completely undramatic negotiation in either case. No publicity back and forth, no camp questions. The news broke, the deal was done, and that was that.

Even the contracts transferred to camp last season didn’t wait until the final days. Wide receiver Diontae Johnson and kicker Chris Boswell signed contracts midway through camp. Johnson completed his hold-in and ended the summer (Boswell didn’t, because let’s face it, a hold-in and normal camp for a kicker look almost identical). Earlier this offseason, QB Mitch Trubisky signed a multi-year extension with the Steelers, bolstering the team’s quarterback depth chart.

That’s a contrast to how the Steelers operated under Kevin Colbert, whose contracts were notoriously pulled together until the last second. Take TJ Watts’ slightly exaggerated story of bursting into the Steelers’ front office, demanding a deal be completed, then running right past the weight room after a lengthy hold-in, a deal not completed until three days before Week 1. Or Troy Polamalu, who famously signed his deal as he boarded the plane prior to the 2011 season opener in Baltimore.

To be fair, there were exceptions under Colbert. Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown got their deals done well in advance. But Roethlisberger is the quarterback exception — it’s a position where you don’t want any future uncertainty heading into an offseason — while Brown…it’s pretty clear he’s a guy who wanted to get paid sooner rather than later, and getting him dealt with reduced the risk of drama.

The change in model goes back to something Omar Khan said earlier in the offseason. Appearing on the Pat McAfee Show, he offered his position on how to handle contracts, the hat he wore from 2001 until he was hired as the Steelers’ GM in May 2022.

“It keeps the negotiations short,” Khan told the show. “I’m too busy having long, drawn-out negotiations.”

There are always layers to a contract, and both sides want to feel good about the outcome. Some deals are easier than others and I imagine contracts like Highsmith and Johnson’s are more difficult, trying to squeeze between a group of players rather than a top-of-the-market deal like Watts, Fitzpatrick’s or even Boswell’s. But Khan doesn’t spend much time beating around the bush. I have to assume he makes a fair offer that reflects the player’s true value rather than low balls or engaging in standoffs until one side blinks. That doesn’t mean what Colbert did was unfair, and of course Khan was the mastermind behind all these deals, but Colbert was willing to let the other side sweat.

And maybe Khan shouldn’t get all the credit. The NFL landscape is changing. Holdouts are rarely a thing anymore, teams now able to fine players who misses mandatory training camp time. In Pittsburgh, holdouts were never a wise tool for players to use, which goes against the Steelers’ longstanding philosophy of not discussing deals with players not in camp. It happened to Hines Ward prior to the 2005 Super Bowl season, with Ward apologizing to Dan Rooney when he finally reported, calling it among his biggest football regrets.

Hold-ins have become more popular and give players, at least in Pittsburgh, some leverage. Teams don’t want players to miss time. A hold-in allows the player to be on the field, to be around the team, but not take practice reps. That is valuable time missed. And hold-ins are more visible, the player there but not working, leading to interviews with the player, his teammates and coaches and becoming a media story.

The point is that now in Pittsburgh there is a consequence of a deal not being done before camp, and that creates more urgency on the Steelers’ end. Khan acknowledges that. If a deal is going to go away, and it was with Fitzpatrick, Highsmith and the others, you might as well get it done early. Everyone is happy to enter the camp and the focus can be solely on football. For the players, for his teammates, for the coaching staff, for the front office.

None of this is to take away from the job Colbert did. There’s almost this fallacy that any praise of Khan is a direct and deliberate criticism of Colbert. It is not. Not this article anyway. It’s just a changing of the guard, an evolution of the game, another guy with a different style. But it is a change worth noting for the Steelers’ next round of negotiations next season, potentially with TE Pat Freiermuth or anyone else who becomes part of the conversation.

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