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 the left tackle position prove to be a liability for the Steelers offense in 2016?
Ever since injuries began to catch up with Marvel Smith, the left tackle position has been an interesting one for the Steelers with Ben Roethlisberger under center. As much as he supported his good friend Max Starks, the aforementioned certainly allowed his fair share of pressure.
Over the course of the bulk of the prior three seasons, the emergence of Kelvin Beachum seemed to offer a glimmer of hope that the team might have found stability at the left tackle position, but that all went awry rather quickly with a torn ACL. Beachum has since, obviously, signed a free agent contract elsewhere.
What the Steelers find themselves left with are now Alejandro Villanueva, Ryan Harris, and Jerald Hawkins. Villanueva is a second-year player turning 28, Harris is an aging veteran, and Hawkins is a fourth-round rookie who declared early for the draft.
Hawkins is unlikely to factor into the equation, of course, but, as much optimism as there might be surrounding Villanueva, he is not the ideal option, and neither is Harris, who started last season for the Broncos primarily because of injury, an offense that gave up 39 sacks last year and as a team posted a 76.3 quarterback rating.
Obviously, Villanueva’s performance has to be qualified with the fact that he had no prior NFL in-game experience, and he was thrown into the fire a bit after Beachum’s injury after being re-converted to the tackle position, but the rose-colored glasses view of his 2015 season needs to be tamped down to gain a more realistic perspective about his future.
He will improve, but he will also struggle, particularly, as he did last year, with deep drops on passes that did not get out quickly, which is actually an area in which Harris did pretty well. But his athleticism has been overstated—he did not play wide receiver at 27 and at over 300 pounds in college, guys—and his technical limitations are already what prevented him from being draftable when he was actually coming out of college.
There was a reason then that he was converted from left tackle to wide receiver in his senior season in spite of the fact that the team lost starting linemen. He has done very well for himself on the football field given where he started from, it seems unrealistic for one to be already convinced he will settle into becoming a stable left tackle.
I understand that Villanueva has a strong background, and I have already been told multiple times that I am promoting an agenda for being less than convinced already that he is the answer at left tackle. I am sharing my view, and it’s not one that I am invested in. I don’t win anything if reality ends up matching my perception. In fact, I lose. In an ideal world, Villanueva begins an All-Pro run in 2016. But I just don’t see it, and I think left tackle will be the weak spot of the offense and a potentially notable liability, especially if Villanueva loses the job.