Few N.F.L. franchises have found as much success through the “UDFA-signing process” as the Pittsburgh Steelers have over the last four decades. Former UDFA’s like Randy Grossman, Donnie Shell, James Harrison, and Willie Parker are some of the most notable examples of Pittsburgh’s success in the aforementioned area.
Heck, the Steelers have more UDFA’s on their roster from their 2009 UDFA class than they do from their entire 2009 draft class! Ramon Foster, Steve McLendon, and Isaac Redman all proved that the talent pool of a draft class does not necessarily evaporate once “Mr. Irrelevant” is selected.
So with UDFA’s in mind, today I thought that I would share my thoughts on Pittsburgh’s 2013 class of undrafted signees. Moreover, I thought that it would be nice to gauge whether or not some of these guys have a legitimate shot to make the practice squad or even the 53-man roster this season or in the future.
The Steelers are essentially bereft of depth at the defensive end position, and the only players backups behind the three-man rotation of Brett Keisel, Ziggy Hood, and Cameron Heyward are Al Woods and 7th round draft choice Nick Williams.
Compounding Pittsburgh’s issues at the position is the fact that Keisel and Hood will both be unrestricted free agents next spring, and one if not both could be playing elsewhere in 2014. Thus, the door could be wide-open for either Brian Arnfelt of Northwestern or Cordian Hagans of Louisiana-Lafayette to earn a practice squad spot.
Interestingly enough, Hagans began his career as an offensive lineman at Louisiana State University. After a year of not playing with the Bayou Bengals, Cordian transferred to Louisiana-Lafayette and switched from the offensive line to the defensive line. Then after one season spent on the bench due to transfer rules and another as a backup, Hagans stepped up in a starting role last season and recorded 41 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, and recovered 2 fumbles for the Ragin’ Cajuns.
Although newer to the defensive line, Hagans has a terrific frame to make the transition to the 5-technique position (6’4″ 299 lbs.). Moreover, I am sure that defensive line coach John Mitchell will take all of the developmental depth that he can get at the moment.
While Hagans’ upside intrigues me, I am very interested to see how Brian Arnfelt does during the upcoming offseason. Like Hagans, Arnfelt has the perfect frame to be a 5-technique in Pittsburgh’s defense (6’5″ 302 lbs.), and he possesses a ridiculous amount of raw athletic ability. At his Pro Day, Arnfelt ran the 40 yard dash in 4.83 seconds and bench pressed 225 lbs. 38 times! While he was a rotational player until his senior campaign, Brian burst out last season and notched 25 tackles, 6.0 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 1 fumble recovery from his defensive tackle position.
Arnfelt could be a sleeper to not only make the practice squad this year, but he could make a run at even earning a roster spot if he performs well over the next few months. While still a raw and developing player, the former Wildcat’s developmental skill-set could definitely intrigue a veteran coach like Mitchell who has done a terrific job of developing late round talent during his career.
Although the Steelers have plenty of young and emerging talent at the nose tackle, questions might still linger about the reliability of the depth at the position. For one thing, Alameda Ta’amu and 2012 free agent pickup Hebron Fangupo saw essentially zero playing time during their rookie campaigns last year. While both players have tools to be effective anchors and backups behind Steve McLendon, their roster spots are not necessarily assured for the 2013 campaign. If Ta’amu and/or Fangupo under-perform during the summer and early fall, then Omar Hunter of Florida and Anthony Rashad White of Michigan State could be in line to take advantage.
Although overlooked when compared to Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, and other Gator defensive linemen, Hunter was an effective player during his collegiate career. After he gained a large amount of playing experience and notched 18 starts during his first three seasons, Hunter started all 13 games for Florida last fall. Overall, Omar logged 40 tackles, 4.0 tackles for loss, and 4 passes defensed as the Gators went to the Sugar Bowl.
If Hunter does want to transition to be an effective 3-4 nose tackle in Pittsburgh’s defense, he will likely need to add more weight and strength to his already “bowling-ball frame” (6′ 313 lbs.). Furthermore, Omar will likely need to get stronger and use his weight more effectively to anchor and draw double-teams.
Like Hunter, White was a rotational player early in his career until he finally got a chance to start full-time as a senior with the Spartans. After he racked up a combined 42 tackles, 1.0 sack, and 5.0 tackles for loss as a sophomore and junior, White recorded 23 tackles and 1.0 tackle for loss last year as Michigan State’s full-time gap-clogger. Built a bit bigger than Hunter (6’1″ 320 lbs.), Anthony can anchor himself a bit better, and he is better suited in the present to transition to the nose tackle position in a 3-4 scheme. White has some short-area quickness to his game, and I will be intrigued to watch how he progresses during the offseason.
While the Steelers addressed the inside linebacker position in the 6th round with their selection of Vince Williams of Florida State, the depth issues at the position are far from settled. Behind Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons are veterans either on their “last chance” in Pittsburgh like Stevenson Sylvester and Kion Wilson, or unproven first and second year players like Williams, Brian Rolle, and Marshall McFadden. This type of environment could be ideal for a versatile prospect looking to make a splash like Alan Baxter of Northern Illinois.
A former defensive end, Baxter was an effective compliment to his teammate and fellow defensive end Sean Progar over the last two years. Overall, Baxter registered a combined 15.0 sacks and 24.0 tackles for loss during the last two seasons. Although Alan does not possess the type of frame to be an outside linebacker (6′ 238 lbs.), he does have a decent amount of athleticism and tenacity to at least compete for a backup spot at inside linebacker. I should also add that Baxter could prove to be an effective A-Gap blitzer or edge-rusher in sub-packages if he is moved inside full time.