The Pittsburgh Steelers, after all, have elected to keep nine offensive linemen on their initial 53-man roster. That is the number that they prefer to keep, and that they usually have. But they may have never had more undrafted free agents among their nine than they will in 2019.
That will include three undrafted free agents among their starters in Pro Bowl left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, 11-year veteran left guard Ramon Foster, and new right tackle Matt Feiler. In addition, both of their interior reserve offensive linemen, fourth-year veteran B.J. Finney and rookie Fred Johnson, were also undrafted.
The only players who were drafted—three by the Steelers—are All-Pros, center Maurkice Pouncey and right guard David DeCastro, and backup tackles Chukwuma Okorafor and Zach Banner. Okorafor was selected in the third round a year ago, while Banner was a fourth-round pick originally by the Indianapolis Colts in 2017.
Johnson, however, is the first undrafted free agent lineman who was able to successfully able to make his way onto the 53-man roster as a rookie since Ramon Foster did it in 2009—at least I believe that to be the case, unless I’m missing somebody in between, but if so, it’s certainly nobody prominent.
Finney had the strongest prior case. He originally signed with the Steelers following the 2015 NFL Draft and signed to the practice squad after he recovered from an injury suffered in the preseason finale. By the end of his rookie year, he was earning a weekly salary equivalent to a rostered player for fear the team would lose him, and he made the 53-man roster the following year.
Like Finney, Villanueva also made the team after spending one year on the practice squad, but his journey was far more roundabout and need not be repeated. Suffice it to say that he first tried out as a tight end and then as a defensive end before the Steelers acquired him and moved him to tackle.
As for Feiler, he actually spent three years on practice squads, including the latter two in Pittsburgh, running out of eligibility before he first made the 53-man roster in 2017. Now he enters his third official NFL season projected to be a 16-game starter. And before him, we can’t forget about Chris Hubbard, who also took the one-year practice squad route and parlayed a spot-starting role in 2017 into a starting-level free agent contract with the Cleveland Browns.
Yes, the Steelers have had great success developing undrafted free agent linemen, many of them homegrown and having spent time maturing on the practice squad. That growth came under Mike Munchak as the offensive line coach.
Can Shaun Sarrett, who was Munchak’s assistant throughout the length of his stay, duplicate that success with Johnson? Where might he fit down the road, assuming that he sticks around? Might he succeed Foster at left guard in a year or two? Presumably, that is the hope.