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 pessimist’s take on the following question.
Question: Will newly-signed offensive tackle Ryan Harris win the starting job at left tackle?
To many, the Steelers’ seemingly serious interest in exploring the free agent offensive tackle interest came as a bit of a surprise, given the largely very favorable impression that first-year tackle Alejandro Villanueva left on many novice observers in starting 12 games including the postseason a year ago.
The team had already made it known that they were interested in retaining Kelvin Beachum on a one-year contract, and when that did not appear to work out, they brought in Russell Okung and sent him a contract offer.
By the time that Ryan Harris came in for his visit, the team likely already understood that a deal between Beachum and the Jaguars was imminent, and they likely heard from Okung’s camp that their offer was out of the running among the others that he received, so that gave them some motivation to get a deal done with the nine-year veteran, who recently turned 31.
Harris, a former third-round draft pick, has started 70 games over the course of his career, including 31 in the last two seasons, most recently as a 16-game starter for the Super Bowl champion Broncos, although he was signed to be an injury replacement.
After overcoming some injuries earlier in his career—most significantly a back surgery that wiped out his 2011 season—he has seemingly regained his footing after two successful seasons as a starter—but that doesn’t mean that he will start for the Steelers, even with his championship pedigree that he brings along with him.
For one thing, it is true that Villanueva did fairly well for himself during his playing time, showing improvement over the course of the season, even if his performance tends to be overstated for a variety of factors, among them his history as a decorated Army Ranger and the fact that he was a backup who managed to do a credible job.
But Harris is far from without his own warts, and he has far more experience—and thus habits and known limits—than Villanueva. How much can he really stand to prosper from the tutelage of Mike Munchak ten years into his career at the age of 31?
If Villanueva continues to improve in his second full season in the league, building from the learning experiences of last year, then it would stand to reason that he has every opportunity to keep his starting job as the incumbent player.
And Harris may well give him the push necessary to max out his talents—not that his dedication is in question. But everybody, especially those known to perform under pressure, as Villanueva has in his life, can benefit from some legitimate competition.