One of the hottest topics of the summer for the Pittsburgh Steelers is inevitably going to be the contract status of three of its starters, and in order of contentiousness, it figures to fall like this: Le’Veon Bell, Alejandro Villanueva, Stephon Tuitt.
Even with Bell’s situation being more contentious and more pressing based on the timeline—there is a July 17 deadline to get a deal done—however, Villanueva’s contract situation has garnered the most attention, largely because it is the most unusual, and frankly, unnecessary.
For just a very brief recap, the third-year left tackle is not currently under contract with the Steelers after declining to sign the restricted free agent tender that the Steelers offered him as his agent continues negotiations with the front office to work out a long-term extension that both parties seem to be interested in finalizing.
That has not stopped the former Army Ranger from participating in every possible rep throughout the spring, signing a waiver in order to do so in order to relieve the organization of any liability should he suffer an injury.
Recently, Bob Labriola was asked a question by a fan who was wondering if Villanueva was demonstrating enough loyalty. While the value of the question itself is very little, the Steelers’ head journalist used the opportunity to put forth—in part reiterating—his own thoughts on the left tackle’s status.
“Where I believe Villanueva will make a mistake is if he doesn’t accept the Steelers’ best offer this summer for a contract extension”, Labriola wrote in response to the questioner, “because in my opinion he would make more money over the next four years under the terms of whatever deal that is than he would by playing it year-to-year until he can become an unrestricted free agent”.
The basic premise is simple. The Steelers can relatively easily control Villanueva’s rights over the course of the next two seasons with the exclusive rights tender this year, which at some point will default into motion, and a first-round restricted free agent tender next year.
The thinking goes that, even while taking a contract of lesser surface value than he might be able to get on the open market in two years’ time now, by making more over the next two years than he would otherwise, he is still netting a greater total.
“And”, as Labriola points out, “there’s also the possibility the Steelers could use the franchise tag on him, which means the team could hold his rights for three years, at which time he would be 32 years old”.
Therein lies the biggest problem for Villanueva, who came into the NFL later than the average first-year player, serving multiple tours in war zones in between failed stints to make a roster here and there. When he made the practice squad in 2014, he was already in his age-25 season. He is already going to turn 29 in 2017 in his third year.
As Labriola points out, he could be heading into the season in which he will be turning 31 or 32 by the time he hits free agency if a long-term deal is not reached between now and then. Now, Andrew Whitworth has proven that you can still cash in during your 30s, but a lot will have to go right between now and then. He is still a relatively inexperienced player with about a season’s worth of strong play on tape, when you really get down to the details.