"Guys, can I just get to my locker? Jeez!"
That was Nick Vannett strolling into the locker room at the Rooney Complex on Thursday following his first official, on-field practice with the Steelers. A swarm of cameras and microphones awaited Vannett at his stall, creating a traffic jam for the 6-foot-6, 260-pound tight end to navigate.
He was, of course, just joking with that exclamation. Vannett was in a fantastic, upbeat mood on this sunny, 78-degree afternoon. He smiled, said his hellos and got to business fielding questions for the reporters on-hand throughout an eight-and-a-half minute session.
The main takeaway? This guy is excited to be a part of this Steelers team. He said it at least four times.
"It's such a great opportunity to be a part of Steeler Nation and come here and help contribute and help bring some wins to this team," Vannett said. "... That black and yellow just hits different. I'm excited to put it on and I can't wait to go out there Monday and represent."
Vannett then pulled out an instant winner with Steelers fans: He showed respect and admiration for those who came before him.
"Even since the Heath Miller days, when I was in high school and middle school, just kinda watching him thrive in this offense, watching [Vance McDonald] thrive, Jesse James and all the other guys that have played before me," Vannett said. "Man, they utilize their tight ends here and that's something I'm not used to where I've been, even college. I just can't wait to show the player that I am in all aspects — run game, pass game, pass protection."
He wasn't done there. If Vannett's appeal to Steelers Nation didn't land yet, it found its target with this one:
"I mean, growing up in Columbus, Ohio, there's so many Steelers fans," Vannett said. "That's all you see is black and yellow. It's either that or Browns fans, and obviously I'm not going to be a Browns fan."
Well played, Mr. Vannett. That's one way to make friends in your new city. Another way?
Produce on the football field.
None of this charm and positive attitude means much if Vannett comes into town and lays an egg on game days. The Steelers need help — now.
The team ranks 30th out of 32 teams in total yards per game with 269.3 through three games. Broken down, it's not any better, as the Steelers rank 25th in passing and 29th in rushing. Unsurprisingly, they are 0-3 as a result. McDonald's status is up in the air for Monday night's showdown vs. the Bengals with a shoulder injury and backup Xavier Grimble was placed on injured reserve, so it's Vannett's time to step in and make an immediate impact.
On that front, his teammates are already impressed.
"Nick's very experienced, so he's flying already, like, he's already got the plays down," Christian Scotland-Williamson was telling me at his locker after practice. "He's been here for one day and already knows exactly what he's doing. Not too many mental errors on the first practice."
Vannett, however, also faltered a bit today — specifically on the sled.
"I know how hard that was for me when I got here," Scotland-Williamson said.
So yeah, it's to be expected, a point you can see (and hear) clearly right here:
That's tight ends coach James Daniel up there in the bucket hat, barking at Vannett — lovingly, I might add — alongside Mike Tomlin. The Steelers head coach paid special attention to this tight end group, as both Vannett and Alize Mack joined the festivities here in the South Side for the first time in 2019. Mack, the Saints' 2019 seventh-round pick out of Notre Dame, was signed to the practice squad and, the team hopes, will continue to develop into a well-rounded NFL tight end.
Vannett, meanwhile, is expected to contribute immediately.
"I have to get up to speed by Monday. I don't have a choice," Vannett said. "They plan on playing me a good amount, and I'm not going to go in and have any doubt what I'm doing. I'm going to go in, feel comfortable, that way I get to play fast, play confident. That's how you get results."
In his four-year career — all with the Seahawks to this point — Vannett has hauled in 48 receptions for 463 yards and four touchdowns. And again, yeah, the Steelers are 0-3. Steeler Nation teeters on the edge of panic mode right now, and Vannett is expected to be a part of reversing course and shifting the momentum of this 2019 season.
First, he has to learn the terminology the Steelers use, which by all accounts, he's doing at a rapid pace.
"They threw me in there live, they tested me, and I feel like I did pretty good," Vannett said. "I didn't feel nervous out there."
Helping him with this transition is McDonald himself, who was seen talking to Vannett throughout Thursday's practice. I asked Vannett what McDonald had to say and what that one-on-one instruction meant to him:
And it's not just McDonald leaving an early mark on Vannett. It's the whole room, the whole staff.
"I think that's why I like it here so much," Vannett said. "I feel like everyone's friendly, just hanging out with the o-linemen, those guys are awesome. Vance and [Zach Gentry] and all the guys in the tight end group have been really helpful so far ... Everybody I've talked to has just kind of helped me."
Monday, we'll all get to see just how much that help pays off.
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