Team building in the NFL is a whirlwind of an experience for players trying to get a foot in the door and for the coaches and front office personnel tasked with sifting through personnel to see who can fit on the preseason roster.
The Pittsburgh Steelers are no stranger to that by any stretch, but taking every route possible to bring in guys that can potentially help the team, whether in practice or on gameday, is not a task to be taken lightly. As the Steelers kicked off rookie minicamp this week, 33 players joined 18 rookies and first-year eligible players to get a taste of NFL practices. Three XFL names have garnered attention among Steelers fans for what they can potentially bring to the black and gold.
Those players are St. Louis Battlehawks center Mike Panasiuk, San Antonio Brahmas offensive tackle Chidi Okeke and, most notably, wide receiver Hakeem Butler, also of the Battlehawks and a former draft pick of the Arizona Cardinals. Butler isn’t at rookie minicamp, though he was mentioned by name Thursday by general manager Omar Khan when discussing the wide receiver room on 93.7 The Fan. His status with the Steelers is unclear.
The NFL certainly isn’t obligated to run to the XFL or USFL to find talent, but the Steelers appear to be adamant about evaluating what the spring leagues have on offer.
“We just utilized all the ball at our disposal and effort to acquire talent and we respect what those leagues are trying to get done in terms of exposing and preparing guys and developing them. And so we just want to do our part in the ecosystem, if you will,” Mike Tomlin said at Saturday’s press conference via the team’s Steelers’ Live Twitter account.
It’s a tough ecosystem to venture for the players. Even the best the XFL and USFL have had to offer have struggled to replicate any success since their revivals over the past several years. Still, it’s a pond worth fishing in for roster depth.
It’s not the first time Pittsburgh has looked to the spring leagues for players. Former XFL’ers Cavon Walker and Jarron Jones are two notable names from the 2020 crop of players the Steelers acquired out of the league. Of course, only one player in that group stuck with Pittsburgh, long-snapper Christian Kuntz, who has been the man in the middle for the Steelers the past two seasons.
With the XFL on hiatus in 2022, the Steelers brought in five names from the USFL last year. None of them made the roster, but the exercise remains a fruitful one if even only one success story comes about every few years. That, of course, makes it just as tough an ecosystem to venture for the front office.