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The Optimist’s Take: Trusting Alejandro Villanueva

The Pittsburgh Steelers have, by and large, been on an upward swing over the course of the past two and a half seasons after they missed the playoffs for two straight seasons, and failed to win a postseason game in four straight years.

Last season saw them gain that elusive playoff victory, though they came up short with about three minutes left in the Divisional round a week later. Their offense took off, and their defense improved, showing playmaking ability and opportunism.

But there are still a lot of unanswered questions facing the team as we crack into free agency territory. As an exercise, we like to take a stab at some of those questions, presenting arguments for the pros and cons of each side of the coin. This is the optimist’s take on the following question.

Question: Should the Steelers be comfortable with Alejandro Villanueva as their uncontested left tackle?

For many, and for a fairly long while, it seemed to be that the question of Alejandro Villanueva’s potential had already been decided based on his play over the course of the 2015 season. A great number of individuals, including beat writers, had deduced that his performance would enable the team to let Kelvin Beachum go as Villanueva develops into the cheaper long-term alternative at left tackle who is good enough with the potential to get even better.

What once had seemed decided, however, is now very much open for discussion with the Steelers already reportedly having an offer on the tackle for Russell Okung and meetings scheduled for two additional veteran offensive tackles who would, at bare minimum, provide competition for the starting job.

Villanueva, the 27-year-old former Army Ranger, began the season as the feel-good story, managing to make the 53-man roster after several failed stints to crack into the league since his college days, but it was six games into the season when he was thrust into the starting lineup.

A two-year starter at left tackle in a four-year college career that also included a season at defensive end and another at wide receiver, Villanueva was signed by the Eagles as a defensive end after failing to make a few rosters over the years as a tight end. It was not until he signed with the Steelers’ practice squad after failing to make Philadelphia’s roster in 2014 that he was put back along the offensive line.

In other words, he has had to come a long way to get where he is now, and he has had fortunate circumstances get him there. He has been the beneficiary of the fine tutelage of offensive line coach coach Mike Munchak, and his partnership of the recently-retained Ramon Foster at left guard gave him every advantage to succeed.

Under those circumstances, he did by and large succeed, and he finished the year with an ascending trajectory. He acclimated himself fairly well in postseason play against quality pass-rushing teams, even if his successes may have been overstated in certain sectors.

The reality is that the Steelers need to add depth at tackle this year regardless of what happens with Beachum or Okung, so chances are some name will be added somewhere down the line. But Villanueva has not done anything to convince me that the team could not succeed if his name is listed with the starters, so from that perspective, I think that if circumstances play out in such a way that dictate it, the Steelers should have some level of comfort with him in that role.

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