While the popular perception, perhaps rightly, seems to be that second-year offensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva is far and away the frontrunner to start the 2016 regular season as the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting left tackle, where he ended last season, the Steelers have maintained that they brought in veteran free agent Ryan Harris for a reason.
Yesterday, we saw the 31-year-old journeyman tackle lining up with the starting, ‘first-team’ offensive line, along with the usual suspects, in a sight we were long warned that we would see once training camp rolled around, and the expectation should be to get used to seeing him mixed in with the starting group over the course of the next month.
Offensive line coach Mike Munchak himself was the one who advised reporters that they should expect to see Harris getting work with the first-team offense, and chances are he may start a preseason game or two as the team looks to gauge where he and Villanueva are and how they work with the rest of the starting line.
Yesterday, Munchak told Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Ray Fittipaldo that the coaching staff collectively “look at him like a starter”, referring to Harris, adding that “it’s always nice to have competition in training camp”.
While it may well be true that Villanueva is the clear favorite to win the job when all is said and done, it should not be said that this competition is just lip service. Villanueva is still a fairly unproven player, and there is no harm in taking a look at what the alternatives might be.
A former third-round pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, Harris has played in 110 games over the past nine seasons, starting 70 games, including all 16 during the regular season last year for the Broncos. He missed the entirety of the 2011 season after undoing back surgery and reaching an injury settlement in September that year.
Since returning from that injury, he has dressed for all 64 regular season games over the past four years, starting 31 games over the course of the past two years as he slowly regained his status as a starting player. He started five games in 2012 and 2013 combined for the Texans before signing with the Chiefs the following year, and then with the Broncos last year.
In Harris corner is the fact that he has been in a number of competitions for jobs in the past, and it has come to be something that he embraces, even if he has little choice but to do so. “Anytime with competition I focus on what my roles are”, he told Fittipaldo. “It keeps you really focused on what’s important. The only thing that matters is how I play. That’s what I’m focusing on”.
Munchak and the coaching staff, however, will be focusing on how both Harris and Villanueva play, and how they play in conjunction with the rest of the line, in order to determine how best to assemble their starting offensive line.