With spring drills officially over, I think we all understand that we’re all in for a long haul, six weeks in total, between the end of minicamp and the start of training camp. You know the drill. There’s little new information coming out during this period, so it serves as the perfect time both to look back, and to look ahead.
We’re going to be focusing mostly on the latter as we prepare—ever so patiently, of course—for training camp. The Pittsburgh Steelers right now have a fairly young roster with inexperienced players that they are hoping to take on a bigger role. The problem is that in many cases, they are still waiting on those players to show them something, and that is the focus of that series—as well as the occasional veteran with lingering questions.
Show me something, Alejandro Villanueva.
Slice it any way you want it, but Alejandro Villanueva is still going to be a 28-year-old second-year former undrafted free agent whose only starting experience had come as a result of injury—perhaps even two injuries.
That much is true, and it is also true that the Steelers signed a veteran free agent tackle in Ryan Harris to compete with him in training camp and the preseason for the starting left tackle position. Let’s even set that all aside, however, and assume that Villanueva, the incumbent, safely keeps that position. He still has a lot to show if he means to be the answer to the left tackle position.
And that is quite understandable, given the background of his playing career. Saying nothing of the far greater import of his military service as a decorated veteran of the Army Rangers—fittingly, this article falling on the Fourth of July, by coincidence—he is still fairly raw and somewhat new to the tackle position.
He was recruited to Army with the intent of playing the tight end position—understandable, given his height and weight—but was instead moved to defensive end and played there his freshman season. He was then moved to left tackle his sophomore and junior years, but then played wide receiver as a senior.
When he attempted to make an NFL roster after going undrafted, he was worked out during two separate offseasons as a tight end, and finally, years later in 2014, signed a contract in the offseason with the Eagles to play defensive end. He had not begun to get back to working as an offensive lineman until the Steelers signed him to their practice squad that fall.
He has come a long way, and there is no shortage of valid optimism surrounding the 6’9” Ranger, but he knows best of all that he is far from a Pro Bowler as it stands, and he understands as well as anybody what he needs to work on.
Last year was an integral learning experience, as he weekly encountered new pressure packages and stunts that he had never seen before, and gradually learned to counter them. Learning is the key idea here. He spent much of last year learning and thinking, and he has said that he knows that he needs to think less and be more aggressive and physical.
Another thing that he will need to account for is less help from the tight ends, as the Steelers used a tight end on his side nearly 10 percent more often than they did with Kelvin Beachum. Villanueva has a big offseason ahead of him to prove he can reach his full potential, but I expect it might be wise not to bet against him doing that based on the growth we’ve seen and the character he’s displayed.