It didn’t take long for Zach Banner to develop into a fan favorite this year, his first full season with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But he was already feeling the love for the city and the organization for a while. Jumping on-board the proverbial moving train last season, the big tackle revealed something that head coach Mike Tomlin told him in the middle of last season that helped push him where he is now.
The Steelers were coming out of their bye week in Week Eight last year, he said, when they faced the Carolina Panthers. In a sit-down interview with Missi Matthews for the team’s website, he told a story about how Tomlin told him the day before the game to meet him in Garrett Giemont’s office the day after.
“Usually when a coach tells you that you’re getting ready to be released. I know that from experience”, he said. Instead, he told Matthews, Tomlin had a question for him. “’How do I turn you into a $50 million tackle?’, he said, ‘either with this organization or with another one, because I can see that in you, and that’s what you were drafted’”.
Banner was originally drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, the Steelers’ next opponent, but he was waived a day after making the initial 53-man roster. He was claimed by the Cleveland Browns in that 2017 season, where he got to experience the 01-6 campaign.
The Browns let him go that offseason, and he briefly spent time with the Panthers later on, but he had been unemployed for a bit by the time the Steelers called him up to bring him in during training camp. He said he was down to 370 pounds by that point, from the 420 pounds he weighed at the end of his rookie year.
Going from what he described as “a just-in-case guy” when originally signed to passing Chukwuma Okorafor as the gameday swing tackle in a year, Banner is starting to come into his own, and is playing well in his tackle-eligible role, in which he was featured extensively, and famously, during the team’s win over the Miami Dolphins on Monday. The crowd cheered whenever he reported.
That is merely the culmination of the course of action set in motion the year before. When Tomlin asked Banner that question, he could only respond with, ‘I don’t know, Coach’”. He was asked where he was living, which was a crappy apartment on the South Side. Tomlin told him to get a house and stay in Pittsburgh for the offseason.
Evidently, that’s the advice Tomlin gives for a lot of young guys who have potential but need help to bring it out. He gave Artie Burns the same advice, and it seemed to work well for him, even though he obviously is not starting.
As for Banner, this past year is setting up the groundwork for, perhaps, something more. While he is already behind an entrenched Alejandro Villanueva and with Matt Feiler coming into his own as well, he will be a restricted free agent in 2020, and will hit the open market in 2021. Chances are he’ll get a chance to start between now and then, and perhaps earn himself a hefty contract from somebody then.