We learn a lot about some of our incoming rookies undrafted free agents and first-year Reserve/Future signings every single year throughout the offseason process, and we find so often that they have an interesting backstory. Of course, having a good story to tell does not, and will never, win you a roster spot, so a lot of these backstories ultimately fall to the wayside if those players don’t make the team.
An interesting theme that I find among this group of rookies and first-year players for the Pittsburgh Steelers is that a number of them have been waiting a long time for this opportunity.
To give you some perspective, the team features a roster of eight players without an accrued season who are at least 25 years old, as of now, and that is without looking into all of the players whose birthdays fall between now and the start of the season. And just to cover that base, there are seven rookies and first-year players who are 24.
From a group of 39 such players, to have eight of them come in at at least 25 years of age already suggests that they have likely taken a circuitous path to the NFL, and that is indeed the case for many.
Rookies Kevin Whimpey and Niko Davis are both already 25. Rather than pursue football after college, Davis enrolled with a ministry due to his strong faith, whose focus was on community service. He took up street performance, making a living that way, until he enrolled with the religiously-inclined Liberty university a couple years later, which explains his late start.
For Whimpey, his path included a transfer from Idaho to Utah and a two-year stint as a missionary with the Church of Latter-day Saints in between. Meanwhile, the Steelers have two rookies who are just 21 years old.
Certainly the most interesting backstory on the roster, however, has to belong to first-year offensive tackle Alejandro Villanueva. A former Army ranger who has served multiple tours of duty overseas, his history on the field may be just as interesting. After playing tight end, he was moved to tackle at Army after his rookie season, only to be moved to wide receiver his senior year.
Villanueva has tried out a few times over the years, the first two times as a tight end, but the Eagles signed him after working him out as a defensive end. After playing the Eagles and Villanueva in the preseason, the Steelers signed him to their practice squad and moved him back to tackle, befitting his 6’9”, 340+ pound frame.
Like Villanueva, Shawn Lemon is also already 26 years old, but in contrast to the rest of the players on this list, he has already experienced success as a professional football player. After failing to catch on after college in the NFL, Lemon ultimately found success in the CFL, last season posting 13 sacks and a league record eight forced fumbles.
Tight end Rob Blanchflower, wide receiver C.J. Goodwin, safety Ian Wild, and outside linebacker Howard Jones are also all 25 years old without an accrued season, though Blanchflower, Goodwin, and Jones all spent the length of the 2014 season on the Steelers’ practice squad. For these men especially, it’s been a long time coming to get their opportunity to make an NFL roster.