The Pittsburgh Steelers are not typically the sort of team to go out of their way to give out more lucrative deals to players than they have to at the time, but they do make exceptions from time to time. They did so for Antonio Brown back when he signed his first extension as they work on his second now.
They made an exception last season for Vince Williams. While he was entering the final year of his rookie deal, after which he would have been scheduled to hit free agency, he is not a starter, and it is rare—exceptional—for them to work out an exception for a player who is not a starter.
To do so says a lot about what they think of not just the player, but also the person. And that is likely what is behind the team’s reported interest in working out a long-term extension for starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, in spite of the fact that he is only entering his third season and is an exclusive rights free agent. They hold his rights on the cheap for the 2017 season and are under no obligation to dole out cash because there’s nothing any other team can do about it.
But Villanueva has not only rapidly ascended into a player who can become a top-10 player at one of the most important positions in the game, he has consistently been an absolutely wonderful ambassador for the Steelers’ brand, for the game itself, for veterans, and for just about anything else you can associate with him.
The decorated war veteran is just the sort of face the franchise would like to have represent them, so there are always business motivations in the mix, but you can no doubt rest assured that they also want to reward him for what he has gone through and what he has achieved for them.
A worthy consideration in the equation is the fact that Villanueva’s atypical path to the NFL has him much further along the standard chronological timeline than most NFL players, as he tried and failed to make a team multiple times and served stints overseas in between.
The Steelers first brought him in as a 25-year-old when he was signed to their practice squad in 2014. He turned 26 just weeks later, and became the team’s starter at 27 several weeks into the 2015 season. Villanueva is going to turn 29 already on the 22nd of September, so there is a very real temporal incentive to get a deal done now.
If the Steelers sign Villanueva to a long-term contract now, they will be getting his best possible years at the end of the life of the contract. I may be completely off-base in my reasoning, but I am compelled to believe that that is a factor in the decision here to want to get him secured for at least the next few years, even when they can have him reasonably affordably through his age-31 season.
Plus, of course, they won’t have to worry about him getting any better and raising his price tag even higher, and risk facing potential bidders next offseason when he will be a restricted free agent. And with the significant rise in the cap every year, a player’s salary demands only travel in one direction.