The Pittsburgh Steelers yesterday released guard Nik Embernate, who signed with the team last season as a priority undrafted free agent.
He suffered a torn ACL early in training camp last year just as he was promoted to the second-team offensive line, which in part helped encourage followers of the team to anoint him a sort of fan favorite.
Having the nickname “Embernasty” didn’t hurt, either.
Evidently still struggling to return from the injury, however, he was waived with a failed physical designation. Center Maurkice Pouncey also tore his ACL, even later in the year, yet was good enough to go to participate during the outset of OTAs.
Embernate was not, and as a fringe player, the Steelers couldn’t afford to waste the roster spot on him at this point during the offseason.
This speaks to a number of old sports adages: “you can’t make the club from the tub”; “the best ability is availability”; etc.
The Steelers were willing to carry him through the season on the injured reserve list last season, but when his recovery evidently proved to be a longer process than anticipated this summer, they couldn’t wait any longer.
The key factor at this point in time is that the Steelers gave up on undrafted rookie Kaycee Ike, an offensive lineman, in order to make room for cornerback Deion Belue, whom they were awarded off waivers.
That left the offseason roster a lineman short, and with Embernate not able to participate, they had to add one who could, signing Emmanuel McCray, a tackle/guard who was recently released by the St. Louis Rams.
Embernate’s story is a reminder of how ephemeral a professional contract is in this league, especially for fringe players such as undrafted free agents. One injury could end a career that has the potential to produce millions before it even begins.
Of course, being waived by the Steelers with a failed physical doesn’t put an end to Embernate’s professional football aspirations. It doesn’t even close the book on his chapter with the Steelers.
While any team is now free to claim him off waivers, he could ultimately revert back to the Steelers if unclaimed. Given that he was released with a failed physical, it seems there’s a fairly strong chance that he clears waivers.
Even so, he would likely still be seen as a longshot to make the roster being as there’s guard Chris Hubbard, who had a full season of practice squad work under his belt and has the flexibility of also playing center.
Rookie lineman Wesley Johnson is the ultimate swing man, capable of playing at all five offensive line positions. Then there’s also the prospect of the team re-signing Fernando Velasco when healthy, who started 11 games at center last year.
Embernate is currently not even healthy enough to put up a fight for a roster spot. There are still plenty of aspects about his situation that are unknown, making it difficult to predict how the next few months for him will unfold, but he needs to get healthy first before anything can happen.