To paraphrase comedian Dave Chappelle from his 2000 HBO Special, Killin’ Them Softly:
“Boo! I’m a Steelers late-round draft pick or UDFA, and I’m going to surprise you this summer.”
“What the hell’s wrong with you?” retorts the heavily-invested Steelers fan. “Those days are over. I’ve been studying your tape since April.”
I often get asked who I think is going to surprise me during a particular Steelers training camp or preseason, and I usually manage to come up with a name or two, players that were either drafted low or not at all.
But if I expect to be surprised, is that really a surprise?
I was asked that question on a recent episode of The Steelers Hangover, and I quickly mentioned Mateo Durant, an undrafted rookie free agent who the Steelers signed to the richest contract in their history for a UDFA running back.
I came up with that name so fast because I knew a lot about Durant. I obviously knew about his financial situation. I was also fully aware of the fact that he rushed for a combined 2,058 yards during his final two seasons at Duke.
So, have I been surprised by Durant’s performance after the first two weeks of Steelers training camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa?
I’ve been surprised by the lack of positive things said about him.
You might say that my expectations for Durant were too damn high; this must be what happens when you expect to be surprised.
It’s so hard to truly be surprised by any underdog story in the modern era; you can blame the endless coverage of all-things Steelers and the NFL. Heck, even Behind the Steel Curtain names an Isaac Redman Award winner every summer; before the players even arrive at Latrobe, there’s already a list of underdog candidates who may “surprise” us with their performances during training camp and/or the preseason.
What’s his face, an undrafted rookie cornerback from Michigan State, was a top candidate to “surprise” us and win the Isaac Redman Award last summer. Why? Nobody could believe he wasn’t drafted. Pro Football Focus, an analytics site that people agree with when it’s convenient and disagree with when it’s not, was really high on what’s his face and gave him wonderful grades. “He should have been drafted in the third round,” said many people about what’s his face.
How did things go for what’s his face in 2021? He surprised everyone by doing nothing all summer and was ultimately cut.
Jeremy McNichols came to Pittsburgh on July 26 as a scrub running back with a combined 395 rushing yards and 295 receiving yards in five seasons but was already a top candidate to be an awesome third-down weapon in Matt Canada’s offense by the time he was placed on Injured Reserve on August 3.
McNichols was replaced on the roster by Master Teague III, an undrafted rookie free agent out of Ohio State who was quickly waived by the Bears in May. I’ve already seen Teague described as “fascinating.” I don’t know if they were referring to Teague’s potential or his name.
I’m sure it won’t take long for us to find out everything there is to know about Teague. Yep, with so many reporters covering these guys at training camp and posting their findings on Twitter every second of every day, we’re certain to know all there is about Teague, from his vision at the line of scrimmage to the number of bathroom breaks he takes in a day, by the time he suits up for his first preseason game this Saturday night at Acrisure Stadium.
The dissection of every single player each offseason, from the number one overall pick to the guys who will likely be using their degrees in the fall, has taken the fun out of being surprised.
I don’t think I’ve been truly surprised by a player since Mike Hilton, an undrafted free agent out of Ole Miss in 2016, arrived at Saint Vincent College in 2017 and took Steeler Nation by storm.
Hilton may have been the last of an already eradicated breed of underdog athletes who were allowed to come out of nowhere and surprise us. I think modern technology has now made it impossible—even Bill from Blawnox breaks down the tape of potential dark horses during his lunch hour at the plant.
Maybe not. Maybe there’s still hope for that kind of thing in 2022. Take what’s his face, the aforementioned undrafted cornerback from Michigan State. I don’t know where he’s at this summer, but hopefully, he’s at some other training camp and surprising a fan base who didn’t spend months preparing for his unexpected awesomeness.