Player: Alejandro Villanueva
Position: Left Tackle
Free Agent Status: Exclusive Rights
2016 Salary Cap Hit: $525,000
2016 Season Breakdown:
I would first like to comment on Alejandro Villanueva in terms of his compensation and his salary cap hit. Villanueva made in 2016 the minimum that a player with one year of accrued experience could earn as an exclusive rights free agent, but he will inevitably receive a performance-based pay bonus. After starting 12 games in 2015, he earned an additional $300-plus-K, and he will no doubt receive at least that in an announcement that should take place in the next two weeks.
If performance-based pay bonuses really factored in the true quality of play for offensive linemen, however, then Villanueva would be in for a substantial windfall—which is partially why the Steelers may well give him just yet in the near future, but more on that in a bit.
The team lost their starting left tackle in free agency when Kelvin Beachum signed with the Jaguars after coming off an ACL tear. They were not yet sold on Villanueva as a full-time starter, prompting them to bring in Ryan Harris to compete, but the reality is that there was never a competition. Harris was never close to being competitive against Villanueva, who clearly demonstrated that he was the better player.
That’s not to say that the second-year player had a smooth season. In fact, he had a number of struggles throughout the first half of the year, which led many, including myself, to wonder why he had regressed even from the end of the previous season.
But he turned his game around immensely over the course of the second half of the season and into the playoffs, where he truly looked like he was a top-10 talent at the left tackle position. He has at this point accrued a great deal of experience, so that should no longer be an obstacle in his performance.
Free Agency Outlook:
The Steelers do not appear to be interested in ever allowing Villanueva to be exposed to another team. In spite of the fact that he is merely an exclusive-rights free agent, meaning that no other team can attempt to negotiate with him provided that the team tag him, they are reportedly interested in getting a long-term deal done with the former Army Ranger.
Part of the motivation for wanting to get a deal done now is the fact that he is not the typical third-year player, as he is already going to turn 29 in September. Those who are aware of his back story will understand why he is substantially older than the typical third-year player.
There is really no question that Villanueva will remain on the Steelers, and it appears that he will be there for quite a bit of time. They have seen enough of him over the course of the past three seasons—including his time on the practice squad in 2014—to believe that he is a franchise piece for however much longer he may have left in his career, so they want to lock him up now.