There were 255 players chosen during the 2020 NFL Draft.
But not getting drafted isn’t the end of the story.
When the Steelers wrapped up their portion of the draft by picking Carlos Davis of Nebraska, there were scores of draft-eligible players still left on the board.
In the following days, the Steelers added 10 undrafted free agents to add to their roster. These players may never play a down in the NFL, but now they’ve got a chance. A chance to make a name for themselves in training camp, to make the practice squad, or even make the 53-man game day roster.
With hundreds of colleges across the United States churning out hundreds of players, there are always some that get overlooked. Whether it’s because they went to a smaller school, or don’t have the right measurables. It’s been true throughout NFL history, and remains true today.
These six players weren’t drafted by an NFL team, yet were still able to carve out meaningful and, in some cases, Hall of Fame careers.
The power of persistence.
Here are the top six Steelers undrafted free agent signings.
Honorable mention: Alejandro Villanueva
6. Ramon Foster, Guard, Tennessee
Foster started 145 games over his 11 year career in Pittsburgh. The undrafted free agent signee from Tennessee started at least 14 games in nine consecutive seasons from 2011-2019. Over the last three seasons, Foster was only flagged five times, with only three being accepted.
5. Keith Willis, DE, Northwestern
One of the forgotten stars of the Steeler teams of the 80s, Willis had 14 sacks in his second season, despite only starting four games. A defensive end/nose tackle from Northwestern, Willis was undersized at only 6-foot-1, 265 pounds but ended up being the Steelers all-time sack leader when he left the team at the end of the 1991 season. This year, Willis joined the Edinboro football staff as an assistant coach.
4. Willie Parker, RB, North Carolina
“Fast” Willie Parker had an inauspicious start with the Steelers. In 2004, his first season with the team he tallied 186 yards on 32 carries. You would have been forgiven for thinking that that would be the end for the undrafted free agent from North Carolina. Then 2005 happened. Parker wrested the starting job away from Jerome Bettis and Deuce Staley, rushing for over 1200 yards on a gaudy 4.7 yards per carry. Oh, and he added the longest-run in Super Bowl history to his resume as the Steelers won Super Bowl XL in Detroit.
The next season, Parker was even better, picking up 1494 yards on the round and adding 16 touchdowns while making the Pro Bowl. Another Pro Bowl season followed in 2007 along with 1316 yards. But that would be his last great season with the Steelers. Despite the team making and winning Super Bowl XLIII against the Cardinals, Parker only had 791 yards during the regular season. Parker added 246 in the playoffs but struggled to only 3.5 yard per carry.
3. Jack Butler, CB, St. Bonaventure
A Pittsburgh native, Butler attended high school in Canada, played at St. Bonaventure and is now in the NFL Hall of Fame. Butler went undrafted, but was brought on by the Steelers thanks to a recommendation from St. Bonaventure priest Dan Rooney, brother of Art Rooney Sr. That turned out to be a prudent decision. Butler was a four time First-team All-Pro and made the 1950’s NFL All-Decade team. When he retired in 1959 he was tied for first in career interceptions with 52 over his nine seasons.
2. James Harrison, LB, Kent State
James Harrison is persistent. A star high school football player, his myriad off the field issues wrecked his chances of going to a high Division-I school. Harrison was undeterred. He walked on to Kent State and became an all-conference player. Harrison went undrafted. His six-foot, 245 pound frame was not the prototypical NFL body type. But Harrison was undaunted. He bounced around professional football, making the Steelers as an undrafted free agent before getting cut. He was signed by the Baltimore Ravens, played in Europe for the Rhein Fire before finally making it back to the Steelers in 2004. A couple of years of mostly playing special teams ensued before Harrison made the Steelers starting lineup in 2007. That year he made the Pro Bowl. In 2008 he made the Pro Bowl, was named a First-team All-Pro and the Defensive Player of the Year, a first for an undrafted player. The Steelers also won the 2008 Super Bowl, which Harrison had a rather large role in.
From 2007-2011 Harrison made five consecutive Pro Bowls and was twice an First-team All-Pro as he helped the Steelers to two Super Bowls. Harrison was the center of a few off the field incidents, and his abdication to New England certainly did not help his standing in Pittsburgh, but his on the field body of work (he’s the Steelers all-time sack leader) is quite uncontroversial.
1. Donnie Shell, CB, South Carolina St.
Shell gets the nod at number one over Harrison and Hall of Famer Jack Butler for his longevity and quadruple Super Bowl wins. Undrafted, despite being an All-American at South Carolina State, Shell went on to play 14 years for the Steelers from 1974 to 1987. His on the field credentials are well known. Shell was a member of the “Steel Curtain” defense that helped propel the team to its four Super Bowls in the 1970’s. He was selected to five consecutive Pro Bowls from 1978 to 1982, was a three time First-team All-Pro (1979, 1980, 1982) and retired as the all time interception leader at strong safety with 51 over his career. From 1977 to 1987 he started 159 games and his 201 games played is second in franchise history behind only Mike Webster.
Until this year, the only knock on Shell’s illustrious career would be lack of Hall of Fame credentials. That slight finally rectified, Shell can rightly take his place in Canton, and only slightly less notable, at the top of this list of undrafted free agents.