The Pessimist’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 pessimist’s take on the following question.

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

If there is one thing that has been made clear over the past few days during free agency about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ beliefs about their current roster that we did not already know, it is that they do not appear to be comfortable with the current state of their offensive tackle situation—specifically entering the 2016 season with Alejandro Villanueva as the uncontested starter at left tackle.

Whether or not they are comfortable with that notion and whether or not they should be, however, are two separate questions. Logically, you will always want to improve your situation, but you can only do the best that you can do, after all. If Villanueva proves to be their best option financially, then is that something that they should be comfortable with?

Perhaps no more comfortable than they were with Mike Adams entering the 2013 season as the starting left tackle, or Kelvin Beachum entering the 2014 season as the starting left tackle. Both players only had a fairly slim resume by that point. One finished with disastrous results, the other not so much.

Villanueva’s story is even more oddball, having spent several years serving overseas in the Army before finally managing to make a 53-man roster in his age-27 season in 2015. He made the roster as a swing tackle, but ended up making 12 starts including the postseason after Beachum’s knee injury.

In those 12 starts, he gradually showed improvement over the course of the season, but not leaps and bounds that would suggest a continued, let alone steep, improvement over the course of an offseason. Yes, he will probably make some strides over the course of the offseason, and for many that might be fine—it may ultimately be what happens—but it is understandable if it’s not an entirely comfortable situation for the Steelers to be in.

With a 6’9” player on the outside, the Steelers understand that they have a player who will have a natural liability in gaining leverage, particularly in pass protection. While his reach has been an asset to him, his inability to compete with the bend of quality pass rushers causes him to bend at the waist and lose technique, and thus the snap, which leads to pressure.

Villanueva has also yet to show that his size is much of an asset in run support, which has been a perpetual, if overstated, criticism of Beachum. And the Steelers are in the midst of a championship window in which they are not necessarily looking to nurture the growth of the player most responsible for protecting their costliest and most critical asset.

Perhaps the Steelers can win a championship with Villanueva as the starting left tackle, but recent events have led to the suggestion that they would rather not be forced to find out. At the very least, they would like to see him earn the starting job against quality competition, in doing so shoring up depth at the position.

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