For those of you which did not know, some of the Steelers’ most important players have been Undrafted Free Agents. From Donnie Shell and Randy Grossman in the 1970′s, to Willie Parker and James Harrison today, Pittsburgh has always had a keen eye for finding under-the-radar and overlooked talent over the past four decades. At least to me, the organization and collective coaching staffs over the aforementioned period have done an overall stellar job of developing players with raw talent and turning some of the Undrafted Free Agents like the ones I discussed before into some of the franchise’s best like Shell and “Deebo” and solid contributors like Grossman and Parker.
Entering this season, there are three former Undrafted Free Agents from the 2009 class on the roster which over the past three seasons have gradually worked their way up the depth chart, and even contributed largely to the team’s success over said span as well. So, today I thought that it would be a good idea to briefly discuss the careers’ of Isaac Redman, Steve McLendon, and Ramon Foster, and explain why stepping up their games during the 2012 season will be of such great importance to furthering their careers’ and helping the team’s fortunes in general.
After working his way up the depth chart, veteran Chris Hoke’s retirement, some solid Coaching by John Mitchell, effective play when he has received snaps over the last couple of years, and a bit of weight gain (280 lbs. to 325 lbs.), Steve McLendon has an enormous opportunity to turn some heads this season and make an even bigger name for himself as a player.
Undrafted out of Troy in 2009, McLendon has held his own since being signed and stuck around with the club over the last few seasons as he has developed into a backup Nose Tackle and rotational player along Pittsburgh’s Defensive Line. Now with “Big Snack” likely being sidelined to begin the year likely on the “PUP” List, and Rookie Alameda Ta’amu with zero pro experience and zero experience in Dick LeBeau’s Defense, McLendon will be counted on to shoulder a great deal of the load at Nose Tackle early in the 2012 season. In fact, McLendon should be Pittsburgh’s best option at the position if “Snack” must sit due to his knee injury sustained late last season.
And even if “Snack” returns healthy later in the season, and the team believes that the massive Ta’amu is the future of the club at the 0-Technique, McLendon has an enormous opportunity to earn himself a full time roster spot, solidify himself as at least the #2 Nose Tackle (Chris Hoke’s old role) for years to come, or even perform well enough for another 3-4 team to consider signing him when he becomes a Free Agent down the road. Defensive Line Coach Mitchell certainly believes that McLendon can do the job, and seems to believe that good things are in store for Steve this season. I know that I will be rooting hard for McLendon to do well, and I hope that he can play well enough to make the transition from “Snack” in the coming seasons easier to bear, and in turn help push Ta’amu and his game to new heights by providing him with some solid competition.
Isaac Redman was the star of the 2009 Training Camp with his work during drills and his batter-ram attitude to push the pile and take on guys no matter what size they were. While he was raw as a runner coming out of Bowie State that season and was an Undrafted Free Agent, Pittsburgh saw enough of his work in the preseason near the Goal Line to successfully keep him on their Practice Squad so they could develop him over the coming seasons.
Anyway, the move by Pittsburgh to sign, cut, assign to the Practice Squad, develop, and eventually play Redman over the last three seasons has paid huge dividends for the franchise. Heck, without Redman, Pittsburgh might have had to play their 2010 Divisional Playoff Game in Baltimore, because it was Isaac’s toughness on the Touchdown catch and run which sealed the division for the Steelers on that Sunday Night Game in Baltimore that season. Overall though, Redman has worked his way into the lineup gradually over the past two seasons where he has been on the roster. Last season, Isaac set career highs last season in Attempts (110), Yards (479), and Rushing Touchdowns (3), and filled in admirably and effectively for Mendenhall in the Wild Card Game at Denver.
Like McLendon, injuries and inexperience of others at his position on the roster in 2012 will give Redman his biggest chance to break out and succeed. With Mendenhall to begin the season on the “PUP” List, and none of the other Running Backs on the roster with a great deal (if any) professional experience, Redman will be called upon to shoulder the load in the running game this year. Hopefully Redman can up his total Attempts to somewhere in the neighborhood of 200-250 this season as the team’s #1 option in the RB by Committee system. As long as he stays healthy though, Redman should be able to do it, because he is a tough player who has kept on exceeding our expectations over the last three seasons.
While he might not earn a starting job this season, Ramon Foster (6’6″ 325 lbs.) will definitely be an important piece of Pittsburgh’s Offensive Line and team as a whole in 2012. Foster, along with ‘08 UDFA from Marshall, Doug Legursky, are versatile and solid backups for this Offensive Line to have. So many injuries have afflicted this unit over the years, and both guys have responded and developed during said period. To his credit, Foster not only made the roster in 2009, but he beat out that season’s 3rd Round pick Kraig Urbik who was supposed to take over at the Right Guard spot after Kendall Simmons left town due to injuries.
Even if Foster does not win the Right Guard job over Rookie David DeCastro, he will still enter the 2012 season as the undisputed top Guard backup on the roster. With 26 starts under his belt, Foster has the experience to at least enter a game cold and off the bench, and know what is going on when he needs to play somewhere. Plus, Willie Colon has not played an entire season of football since 2009, and has only played in one game since then. If Pittsburgh’s new Left Guard is injured, Foster will be asked to fill in for whatever period is necessary, and do an adequate job in his absence. Foster will be the team’s “Swing Guard,” on game-days and an important backup to have at a moment’s notice this season and beyond.
2012 will be an important season for Foster, even if he plays sparingly, because of the fact that he will be an Unrestricted Free Agent after the season ends. Foster will be playing for a new contract in 2013, and might even be playing for it somewhere outside of Pittsburgh if another franchise offers him an opportunity to start if the Steelers want to keep him around as a backup (or cannot afford him salary-cap-wise). Hopefully, Ramon will not be needed too much this season, because if that is the case it will mean that injuries have afflicted the Guard spot(s) yet again. Nevertheless, this team has lacked quality depth along the Offensive Line for years, and if Foster is pressed into action, it is at least comforting to know that Offensive Line Coach Sean Kugler can turn to a guy which has started 26 games and developed into a solid option to turn to if his number is called.
I know that I will be watching closely to see how these three players perform over the coming months. Redman will likely garner most of the headlines because he plays a skill position and will receive the most touches, and in turn the most notoriety. Still, McLendon’s progress and continued development should be intriguing to watch, and we as fans should keep an eye on Foster’s development, how much he ends up playing in 2012, as well as what the team decides to do with him and Legursky (also a Unrestricted Free Agent following 2012) after the regular season ends. I would like to see three UDFA’s in one class pan out for this club and become at the very least top backups/spot starters to important starters and contributors. The opportunities are there for these guys to succeed in 2012 and into the future, and now the only question will be whether or not they can take advantage of them.
Stats Courtesy of: Pro Football Reference.com