It’s not that there isn’t a significant and notable history of players who were formerly drafted coming to be great players, even among the best in the history of the game. It’s more that it only accounts for a very small percentage of them in total. Teams typically sign about as many rookie college free agents every year, if not more, than they do drafted players, so the pool of undrafted players is so large that the odds favor a small number of them turning out to be contributors.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no strangers to this history. They’re due to install one into the Hall of Fame next week in safety Donnie Shell. More recently, they had an offensive line stacked with undrafteds, like Ramon Foster, Alejandro Villanueva, and Matt Feiler. Then, of course, there was James Harrison.
Pittsburgh anticipated installing another former undrafted free agent into the starting lineup this year in third-year linebacker Robert Spillane, who came out of Western Michigan in 2018. Others didn’t think he would reach this point, but you don’t get here without believing it yourself.
“I’ve always had confidence in myself. People never thought that I would be here where I’m at right now, so just the fact that I’m here as the number one linebacker next to Devin Bush in this unbelievable defense, it feels special to me”, he told reporters following practice today. “But I don’t that that lightly, and I don’t take it for granted. Any one play you get injured, or something happens, things change. So I’m taking these days with love and passion for the game, as I always do”.
Spillane, who is the grandson of former Heisman Trophy winner and Pro Bowler Johnny Lattner, has consistently displayed a deep respect and admiration for the game throughout his time with the Steelers. He is a football lifer, and one of the few players back in January and February who were talking about being excited about OTAs and hoping they would go off with everyone on the field.
“Even some people in your family might say, ‘what are you doing, you’re not gonna be out there’. We don’t necessarily believe in you”, he said. “But having that faith in myself the whole way through, even when the odds weren’t in my favor, per se, but just trusting in myself and my abilities, and good things kept happening day after day, stacking those days on top of each other, so I’m thankful for that”.
First signed by the Steelers in 2019, he spent the first half of that season on the practice squad before being called up due to injury, and became a mainstay on special teams. He entered the 2020 season as the top backup, and ended up starting seven games and playing well after Bush tore his ACL. Now, he’ll be starting alongside the former first-round pick.