2016 Training Camp Battle Preview: Starting Left Tackle

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.

From my perspective, the one battle for a starting job that is most likely to be contested figures to be the battle for the left tackle position, and that say as much or more about the other looming battles as it does about this one.

The incumbent at the position is Alejandro Villanueva, a second-year soon-to-be 28-year-old who is a former Army Ranger, but who is still relatively raw when it comes to playing offensive tackle. He spent two seasons in college playing the position, then had a year on the practice squad in 2014, and played 12 games in 2015.

That is Villanueva’s resume up to this point, which is why the Steelers kicked the tires on a number of alternatives to at least provide competition this offseason, reportedly even offering a contract to Russell Okung. Instead, they brought in veteran journeyman Ryan Harris, who started all of last season for the champion Broncos.

Though Villanueva spent most of the spring running with the first-team offense, offensive line coach Mike Munchak made it clear that the battle would not really start until training camp, at which point there will be plenty of opportunity there and in the preseason to see both players work with the first-team offense.

While Harris is the veteran, Villanueva is still regarded as the favorite. He had his struggles, understandably, in his first taste of playing time as a professional, but he handled it about as well as could be expected, and the belief is that he still has room—mentally, that is—to grow.

As far as predictions go, I do believe that Villanueva is likely to maintain his starting position over Harris, but I think it will be much closer than many have projected.

Harris has strengths in his game that Villanueva still lacks, particularly in deep passing sets, and the latter still needs to learn to play more physically while limiting waist-bending due to his 6’9” frame, which is equal parts advantage and disadvantage.

The good news, however, is that there is real, meaningful competition, and that means that there will also be real, meaningful depth. The only smidge of concern on that front is that Villanueva has minimal experience working on the right side should he lose the starting job and be needed to player there.

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