Things don’t always go the way that you plan. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still get to where you wanted to go, even if it takes you longer to get there.
That’s the lesson learned from Zach Banner, who four years after he was drafted in the fourth round by the Indianapolis Colts was named the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting right tackle for their season opener on Monday night against the New York Giants.
Measuring at over 6’8” and 353 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2017 out of USC, Banner was an obvious physical talent as a three-year starter from a Power 5 school, but in spite of that, he fell to the middle arounds—and ultimately off the Colts’ roster before his rookie season began.
Like Doran Grant for the Steelers in 2015, he did make the initial 53-man roster, but the Colts claimed five players off waivers, and Banner was one of the five who were let go in order to make room, which included offensive lineman Ian Silberman.
From there, he was claimed by the Cleveland Browns, where he would spend the entire season, ultimately logging a total of 27 snaps in offensive playing time that year late in the season, dressing for a total of eight games.
But in an organization continually churning, he was let go the following March along with nine other players—the second time in his career, within his first year since being drafted, that he was a part of a multi-person wave of releases. This dump also included B.W. Webb, Jason McCourty, and Sammie Coates, among others.
While a setback, he was quickly claimed off waivers again by the Carolina Panthers, but this would be his shortest stint in the NFL, waived just a month and a half later at the end of May. This time, he would not be claimed. He was out of a job for almost two and a half months until the Steelers needed another tackle in training camp in the middle of August.
He came in, showed up to training camp, and looked like a prospect, playing well enough in the preseason that they were willing to carry him as their ninth lineman for the entire season, even though he did not dress for a game. He bided his time.
And finally, in 2019, actually having the opportunity to have an offseason to grow not just within a team but within an organization, and within himself, he found a renewed, rejuvenated passion for the game, and for life. He turned that into production on the field.
Though he never got into the lineup, the Steelers used Banner as an extra blocker, commanding over 200 snaps as the ever-popular tackle-eligible, and he found success in this role, particularly in the running game.
Over this course of time, he grew into himself, and in the hearts of the fanbase. With Ramon Foster retiring, the Steelers gave him and Chukwuma Okorafor the opportunity to compete to start at right tackle.
That competition went down to the wire throughout training camp, but Mike Tomlin named him the starter on Tuesday—two years after asking him during the 2018 season what Banner needed from him to turn him into a franchise tackle.
Now it’s up to him to make it stick, not just this year but into the future. After signing a one-year deal as a restricted free agent, which he characterized as betting on himself, he is due to hit the open market in March—provided that he doesn’t sign an extension with the Steelers over the next few days.