PITTSBURGH -- The first time I walked into the Steelers' locker room at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex in South Side, I was told something I'll never forget - "you dropped your pocket."
As I looked up from discovering I did not, in fact, drop my pocket, I read the name on the plate above the locker, "Banner". Below it, a curly-haired 6'8 giant stood with a smirk and a sarcastic laugh, introducing me to who I'd soon know as the NFL's favorite eligible receiver.
Over the next 17 weeks, there were jokes, fake interviews, Twitter roasts, and onesies. Fans bought jerseys and the city of Pittsburgh fell in love with "number 72 Zach Banner." And within the midst of a season full of 0-3 starts, defensive touchdowns, 'Duck Mania', a possible Defensive Player of the Year and a playoff push, the Steelers extra tackle stood tall, on and off the field.
"I love it here." As we spoke, Banner just kept repeating it.
"But at the same time we got to understand when teams move in certain directions," he continued. "So it's up to them if they want to tag me obviously. If not we'll go from there."
It's the cold truth for Banner this offseason. As the clock hit zero at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, the third-year tackle became a free agent.
While he's staying hopeful, Banner's mindset remains business-oriented. He understands the league and the needs of the Steelers. Pittsburgh's list of free agents includes names like Bud Dupree, Javon Hargrave, Mike Hilton and restricted free agents such as right tackle Matt Feiler. Therefore, to expect a contract being guaranteed this offseason is a bit of a stretch.
"It just happens, if it does happen," he stopped, gathered himself. "I love it here, I'm happy playing football again and if you were to ask me 'do you want to play the rest of your career here?' I'd love to, but like I said it's a business."
When he arrived in Pittsburgh, Banner was over 400-pounds and bouncing around the NFL too early in his short career. For a fourth-round pick, Banner made his way through three organizations before his third year in the league.
Once he started working under Mike Tomlin, something changed. Banner came into the 2019 summer down massive weight and more physically ready than he's been in any season.
Immediately making waves in training camp, Banner went from being inactive most weeks in 2018 to playing in 15 of 16 games this season.
Moving into next year, being a part of the offense is only a stepping stone. What he was able to do this season in 203 offensive snaps - outside of not catching a pass - was enough to show teams what's ahead, and take that next leap for whatever team he's a part of.
"What I put on film this year and what I'm going to earn and turn myself into even more this offseason will solidify that I have the potential to be a starter in this league next year," Banner said.
The Steelers are in a situation where an emerging tackle could be a high priority on their list. Matt Feiler became a restricted free agent at the end of the season, meaning the team can match a qualifying offer before receiving a tendered pick if the two sides part ways.
Alejandro Villanueva becomes a free agent next offseason, and at 33-years old Pittsburgh could be looking at a more appealing option in Banner. But either way, there isn't a worry for who's "in front" of him, because the 26-year-old is fully aware of what he brings to the field.
"I don't want to think about other people's situations," Banner said. "I really think, no matter what, at the end of the day if I take care of business and work the way I know that I can work and turn myself into another, better form of myself than I did this year, that I can start."
As he walked out of the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for what could be his last time as a Steeler, he had a message for us. A reminder of how far he's come and how little it'll mean compared to what's ahead.
With his pocket well in tact and a bit more serious smirk then his usual self, the NFL's favorite eligible receiver entered the offseason as determined - or more - than he's ever been.
"Just to understand that nothing is settled," Banner said. "It doesn't stop for anything, a lot of you go back to your notes; 'Banner, ah long shot. Third-string tackle.' How do I do that even more, how do I keep that same energy going into this season, that's how I do it again."