The Pittsburgh Steelers’ season ended a few weeks earlier that they had planned it to, but now that their 2015 campaign has drawn to a conclusion, it’s time to wrap things up and take stock of where they are and how they got there. Part of that process involves holding player exit meetings at the conclusion of each season.
Of course, we’re not privy to the specifics that go on in each of these meetings between head coach and player, and whomever else might be involved in any particular discussion, but if we were conducting them, it might go something like this.
Player: Alejandro Villanueva
Experience: 1 Year
Alejandro Villanueva may have begun the season as a backup, and thus missed the cutoff for being included in the first round of exit meetings, but that’s certainly not how the season ended, as, of course, he ended up being the primary starter at left tackle for a team that advanced to the Divisional round of the playoffs.
We know the backstory, but as far as it begins with the Steelers, they saw him play defensive end for the Eagles in the preseason in 2014. After he failed to make the roster, Pittsburgh picked him up on their practice squad, moved him to tackle, where he played as a sophomore and junior at Army, and led him marinate on the practice squad last year as he put on weight.
The hope was that in time that investment would pay dividends. It did.
With Mike Adams underdoing an operation on his back just before the team broke for training camp, Villanueva was sort of thrust into the spotlight right away, opening things up as the team’s third tackle and lining up behind Kelvin Beachum on the left side.
The 27-year-old had a pretty encouraging showing in the preseason, enough for the team to feel comfortable going into the regular season as their top backup with the possibility of Adams returning from the Physically Unable to Perform list.
But he never did. And not only that, Beachum went down with a torn ACL. So not only would the Steelers not get their swing tackle back, they lost their starter too, and were left to sink or swim with the Ranger.
Villanueva took his lumps, to be sure, but he played more than well enough for the Steelers to find success more often than not. Considering that he only picked the position of tackle back up in September of 2014, his 2015 showing has to be considered encouraging.
He learned a lot on the fly, constantly being thrown new looks that one can only learn to anticipate and adjust to through experience.
And that is experience that will come in handy next year assuming Beachum walks in free agency and Villanueva is kept in the starting lineup. The hope will be, of course, that 2015 was just the jumping off point for the 6’9” tackle. But at the very least, he will be the more affordable option, and they already have 12 games’ worth of film from which to determine his value.