Think Worthwhile, Not Worth, While Pondering New Villanueva Contract

Pittsburgh Steelers tackle Alejandro Villanueva finally decided to talk to the media this past week and since then we’ve been showered with stories that center around how much he’d be worth as a free agent and what the average salary of a starting left tackle in the NFL is. While those types of stories might entertain the masses, the reality is that their focus doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes to Villanueva’s current situation.

Yes, I get the fact that had Villanueva been an unrestricted free agent this past offseason it’s likely he would have already signed a multi-year contract averaging $8 million or more a season. Yes, I also understand that there are currently 23 other left tackles in the NFL that are averaging more than $5 million a year in earnings. I’m sorry, but none of that matters when it comes to Villanueva.

Look, I’m a big Villanueva fan. Just search back in this site’s archives for proof of that. Not many are happier for what Villanueva’s been able to accomplish over the course of the last three years than I am. Regardless, Villanueva must now pay the price for the Steelers taking a chance on him a few years ago when they decided to sign the former Army captain to their practice squad and switch him from defensive end to offensive tackle after he was waived by the Philadelphia Eagles.

Villanueva, as most all of you should know right now, was an exclusive rights free agent this offseason and that means he essentially had no rights at all. The Steelers issued Villanueva a minimum one-year, $615,000 tender and that’s par for the course when it comes to exclusive rights free agents.

When thinking about a new potential contract this offseason for Villanueva, one must not concentrate on what his market value would be as an unrestricted free agent or what the current average salary of starting left tackles in the NFL is. Instead, one needs to look at the maximum Villanueva can earn over the course of the next two years even though he’s technically not even under contract with a team right now.

In short, Villanueva currently stands to earn a max of nearly $5 million in total salary over the course of the next two years. That nearly $5 million total assumes he would be given an early estimated first-round restricted tender of roughly $4.2 million ahead of the 2018 new league year and him signing his $615,000 exclusive rights tender this offseason. That’s it, that’s the maximum he can earn salary wise right now over the course of the next two years. Sure, he can potentially qualify again for more Performance Based Pay program bonuses over the course of the next few years which could ultimately push him closer to $6 million in total earnings.

As you can see, the Steelers have a lot of leverage when it comes to Villanueva and they’re fully expected to use it. The only thing Villanueva can do for leverage is withhold his services and ultimately holdout. If you know your Steelers history, that wouldn’t be a wise choice by Villanueva.

So, is there some sort of middle ground contractually that can ultimately be worked out that’s not only great for both sides, but will also allow Villanueva to potentially cash in big one last time down the road? Absolutely there is and I laid out that middle ground for all of you way back in February when the initial reports surfaced that the Steelers might try to extend the contract of Villanueva prior to the start of the 2017 regular season.

As I wrote way back in February, a three-year, $15 million contract would be perfect for the Steelers and fair for Villanueva as well, all things considered.

As I stated earlier in this post, Villanueva currently stands to earn roughly $6 million at the very most over the course of the next two seasons. Him signing a new three-year-contract worth $15 million that pays him $6 million in 2017 and $10.5 million after the first two years allows Villanueva to earn $4.5 million more than he would have earned initially. Assuming he stays healthy and on an ascending development plane, Villanueva could hit the market as an unrestricted free agent after the 2019 season and would do so way ahead of his 32nd birthday.

With the above said, the Steelers might ultimately decide to sign him to another extension prior to the 2019 regular season. If they don’t, the only way they could retain him for at least the 2020 season would likely include them needing to place the franchise tag on him and God only knows what that amount will be in a few more years.

Below is what such a contract looks like on paper and please notice the cashflow.

Three-Year, $15 Million Contract Example
2017 $1,000,000 $1,666,667 $0 $2,666,667 $6,000,000
2018 $4,500,000 $1,666,667 $0 $6,166,667 $10,500,000
2019 $4,500,000 $1,666,666 $0 $6,166,666 $15,000,000

Now, could the Steelers up that by a million or two more per year without overextending themselves from a salary cap and cash perspective? Absolutely and below is a contract example that would pay Villanueva and average of $7 million over three years that puts $8 million in his pocket in 2017.

Three-Year, $21 Million Contract Example
2017 $2,000,000 $2,000,000 $0 $4,000,000 $8,000,000
2018 $6,500,000 $2,000,000 $0 $8,500,000 $14,500,000
2019 $6,500,000 $2,000,000 $0 $8,500,000 $21,000,000

Now, the only problem with paying Villanueva $7 million a season after he’s only started 31 games is the fact that Steelers right tackle Marcus Gilbert is currently earning an average of $6 million a season and he’s been playing at a Pro Bowl level the last two seasons.

In short, expect the Steelers to ultimately work out a new two or three-year contract with Villanueva between now and the start of the regular season that averages between $5-$7 million a year and puts between $6 and $8 million in the tackle’s pocket in 2017.

Forget what Villanueva might be worth right now and think more about what is worthwhile for him and the Steelers.

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