Mike Munchak’s Success Turning UDFAs Into Contributors Critical To OL Depth

During the early portions of head coach Mike Tomlin’s tenure with the Pittsburgh Steelers, there was something of a pattern to the manner in which he dealt with new coaches on his staff. When a new coach was brought in, he had a tendency to try to stock his shelves with new talent in the draft to give him the best chance to succeed.

Offensive line coach Mike Munchak has been the exception to that rule, somewhat. During his four seasons with the Steelers, the team has only drafted two offensive linemen, and both of them have come on the final day of the draft.

During his first season with the team in 2014, Pittsburgh used one of their picks in the fifth round to draft Wesley Johnson, an interior offensive lineman from Vanderbilt who, if I recall correctly, actually had starts at all five offensive line positions while in college.

The Steelers kept him on their 53-man roster, those as a game-day inactive, and when a roster spot was needed mid-season due to injuries, prompting a call-up of Ross Ventrone from the practice squad, the Jets swooped in and claimed him off waivers.

Two years later, in the 2016 draft, Pittsburgh took LSU underclassman tackle Jerald Hawkins in the fourth round. After a promising preseason game, he landed on injured reserve for the remainder of his rookie season. He had a very shaky offseason this year, but has since worked into a role as a tackle-eligible.

Even though the Steelers haven’t given him a lot of new pieces to work with, there are two key points to address here. For one thing, he already had a lot of pieces to play with. Ramon Foster, Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, and Marcus Gilbert, from left to right, were already in place, and Kelvin Beachum was looking like the answer at left tackle heading into his first full season as starter that year.

The other thing that needs to be pointed out is that he and the team have done an extraordinary job of developing not just that talent, but also the talent that they have acquired as undrafted free agents and in the street free agent market.

The only other player whose tenure predates Munchak’s is Chris Hubbard, who was on the practice squad in 2013. But he made the roster in 2014, and has steadily improved with each year, to the point where he started most of this season at right tackle, maintaining a level of performance that is likely to earn him a starting job in free agency for next season.

Alejandro Villanueva’s story cannot be talked about enough, but we have done so numerous times. He was a novice at best when brought in after the 2014 preseason, but he has since been developed into a franchise left tackle.

Over the past three years, he has also developed B.J. Finney, and now Matt Feiler, both of whom look like potential long-term keepers as reserves. Finney may well end up replacing Foster in the starting lineup before too long. And their development has a lot to do with their position coach.

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