After the Pittsburgh Steelers lost unrestricted free agent tackle Kelvin Beachum during the offseason to the Jacksonville Jaguars it seemed like a forgone conclusion that Alejandro Villanueva would be the player to permanently take over the starting job on the left side of the offensive line for the 2016 season. While that ultimately might happen, the Steelers made sure to add a few players during the offseason to push the former Army captain in the form of veteran Ryan Harris via free agency and Jerald Hawkins via the draft.
During a recent interview that was aired on Steelers Nation Radio, Villanueva made it clear that he’s not taking his spot on the team’s roster for granted this offseason and that he assumes nothing right now as the team wraps up their annual mandatory minicamp.
“At the end of the day there’s just so many players in the mix all of the time that you’re not really just competing with the guys in the locker room, you’re competing with the whole NFL,” said Villanueva, who started the final 10 games of the regular season and both playoff games at left tackle last year after Beachum was lost for the season to a knee injury. “It’s not a matter of is Kelvin Beachum gone, it’s my job to take, it’s a matter of now is somebody else is going to come, whether it’s a drafted player or sign a free agent? The team has expectations of each player and what you can do. So I guess in my case; I have to prove that I can continue to play for the Steelers.”
Villanueva’s path to the NFL was an uncommon and difficult one that included him initially playing on the defensive side of the football with the Philadelphia Eagles after being signed as an undrafted free agent just over two years ago. After being cut by the Eagles prior to the start of the 2014 season, the Steelers signed Villanueva to their practice squad and started transitioning him to the tackle position. That transition lasted all season and he ultimately made the Steelers final 53-man roster last year out of training camp, a likely a result of Mike Adams being sidelined with a back problem. The 6-9 tackle reflected back on his path in the interview.
“I think the journeys to get into the NFL are very different. You can walk on the red carpet at the draft. You can drive in a limo as a free agent from the airport, or you can just be the guy that’s walking into the back door,” Villanueva said. “I walked in and I jumped the fence and walked through the back door essentially. I was a guy, regional combine guy, never really played the position.
“I think it was more of a marketing story because I was in the Army rather than potential to play and so because of all of those reasons I think it distracted a lot from the things that I could do on the field. But luckily I found a team in the Steelers that didn’t really care I was in the Army and because of that I think I had a fair shot last year at showing what I could do. And obviously I had a lot of luck that helped me a lot and so once you have those little breaks in life you just got to make sure you take advantage of them and you don’t let it go because it’s really going to be tough to find another great opportunity like this.”
Even though Villanueva gained quite a bit of experience last year with the Steelers as a starter he’s well-aware that his play wasn’t as consistent or up to the standards they need to be.
“Yeah I didn’t know the playbook as well as I should have,” Villanueva said. “I didn’t prepare for games like I should have, I didn’t play as physical as I should have, I didn’t follow what my teammates were doing in a lot of instances and I tried to learn things my way in some instances, and I made a lot of mistakes. And so at the end of the day if you can watch your mistakes and you can get feedback from the entire line then you become a better player and you can make better decisions the next time you go play.”
The battle between Villanueva and Harris during this year’s training camp should definitely be one to pay close attention to but when the smoke finally clears at the conclusion of the preseason, I’m willing to bet the former gets the nod to be the team’s starting left tackle. It’s certainly hard not to root for a guy like Villanueva.