The Pittsburgh Steelers would seem to have been done a favor by the prolonged recovery that Mike Adams experienced following his back surgery in July. While it robbed them of the player that they at the time had pegged as their primary reserve swing tackle, having served in that role during his first three seasons while he was not in the starting lineup, it gave them an opportunity to get a good look at their tackle situation at a key moment that they otherwise would not have.
To begin with, Adams’ absence during training camp gave the Steelers ample opportunity to gain a proper evaluation of Alejandro Villanueva, a bit of an enigma as a 27-year-old first-year player with about as interesting a back story as you can find in the NFL.
Having graduated several years earlier and experienced multiple failed attempts to crack into the league at both tight end and defensive end in between stints serving the country overseas in the armed forces, Villanueva came to the Steelers as a massive project, having been signed to the practice squad after spending the 2014 preseason with the Eagles on defense.
That valuable playing time gave the team the requisite level of comfort to go into the season with Villanueva as their swing tackle, knowing that he is still a developing player, but trusting that he would have enough skill and intelligence to get by in the process.
Little did they know that they would lose Kelvin Beachum, their starting left tackle, six games into the season, and that Villanueva would have to start 12 games, including the postseason, in his stead, all the while learning on the job and experiencing the ups and downs of a raw NFL player facing the highest competition.
Though the level of competition was higher in the regular season than what he saw in the preseason, Villanueva largely picked up where he left off with regards to raw one-on-one talent, but with the greater level of complexity involved in game-planning in non-exhibitions games, he struggled when he was thrown looks that he hadn’t seen before.
The former Army ranger did improve as the season progressed, as would be expected of somebody in his position, and even showed some very positive traits that may well find him keeping his starting job into the 2016 season. In particular, he has displayed impressively quick and powerful hands to chop down edge rushers and send them to the ground.
But his 6’9” stature also works against him as much as it works with him as he struggles to maintain leverage against shorter opponents, particularly those who are able to take a low attack angle around the edge. Most important, however, is that the Steelers did not limit their playbook because he was in the lineup.
Beachum is now a free agent, and Villanueva looks to be in solid position to retain his starting spot, depending on how the market dictates the Steelers handle his contract situation. He was coming off a very promising 2014 season, but struggled early in 2015, is coming off a knee injury, and is, of course, naturally short for the position.
In the meantime, Pittsburgh figures to get Adams back to serve as the swing tackle behind Villanueva, assuming that that is how the scenario plays out, since his contract was tolled because he spent all year on the PUP list. It’s never a good thing to lose a starter to injury, but in this case, there could be a silver lining.