As the calendar continues to push forward, we hasten upon the end of July, where looms the beginning of training camp, the necessary respite for all football fans who have been the past six weeks wondering what to do with themselves—as least as far as the game goes.
With the start of training camp also comes the start of meaningful competition, and I’m not just talking about players getting to put on pads and smash into each other. There are battles to be won. Position battles, roster battles. Battles for starting jobs.
Before we get too deep into the swing of training camp, here is a quick series that provides a preview of some of the most significant battles that will have to be determined over the course of training camp and the preseason, though the regular season can always decide to change the results.
Most seem to be under the impression that there will be little to no competition for the spot, but the training camp and preseason work of Alejandro Villanueva and Ryan Harris will be important all the same, because no matter who is starting on Sundays, the third tackle will always be an important position, and recent history attests to that awfully powerfully for the Steelers.
Villanueva, a second-year player who spent the 2014 season on the practice squad, is the incumbent after being thrust into the starting lineup six games into the 2015 season due to injury. He experienced a notable learning curve during that time, but steadily improved as the season wore on.
As for Harris, though he is a bit of a journeyman at this point in his career, he has extensive starting experience, and started all of last season for the Super Bowl-winning Broncos. He is one of now very few players in the Steelers’ locker room with a ring.
Though Villanueva and Harris are seemingly trending in opposite directions, the former just beginning his career (even if he will soon be 28) and the latter approaching the end, their talent levels are not so far apart, but the veteran obviously holds the edge in terms of experience.
The former Army Ranger has a small arsenal of go-to moves in pass protection, but is still raw in his technique and understanding, and at times relies too heavily on his moves, which results in more nuanced pass rushers being able to set him up for failure.
This has been particularly true on deep-set quarterback drops, which is where Harris has the edge, but the veteran has been less successful in holding together on shorter drops. Neither have been particularly impressive as run blockers, but if Villanueva can learn to play with aggression, I believe he can be an asset in that area.
Whoever loses—and it is an open question—he will still be a valuable asset, serving as the team’s swing tackle, which has been a vital position the last several years. Villanueva, after all, was the swing tackle last year and ended up starting 12 games.