After just 31 starts in the NFL, including the playoffs, nobody is going to claim that Pittsburgh Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva is one of the best currently at his position. However, if he continues his current track of progress in 2017, he might easily be considered a top 10 left tackle in the NFL come this same time next year.
While Villanueva undoubtedly went through more growing pains last year during his first full season as the Steelers starting left tackle, as the season wore on, he became a more consistent player and especially in the pass blocking phase of his game. In fact, according to the much-maligned Pro Football Focus, who even I take issue with quite a bit, Villanueva was one of the NFL’s top pass protectors from Week 7 and on last season. According to their analytics, Villanueva’s 96.2 pass blocking efficiency stat ranked him 11th of 57 left tackles last season from Week 7 and on. PFF, by the way, has Villanueva down for only allowing 12 pressures during the Steelers final nine regular season games.
One of the NFL's top pass protectors from Week 7 onwards pic.twitter.com/VoZNkVYEPN
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) July 4, 2017
Villanueva, who has yet to sign his one-year exclusive rights tender he was issued by the Steelers earlier in the offseason in hopes that he will ultimately sign a more lucrative long-term contract prior to the start of the 2017 regular season, made it clear several weeks ago during an interview with Adam Schefter of ESPN on his podcast that he’s not resting on his laurels and that’s he’s constantly studying other top players in the league at his position to improve his overall play.
“I study the best left tackles in the NFL,” Villanueva said. “I enjoy the process of watching film, of finding ways to get better. It’s the same as someone else would do in corporate America if they were trying to change something about their company and get better. You would look at who’s doing it best in the industry and in my industry and in the NFL, you have tackles that have done a lot effortlessly.”
Even if Villanueva’s quest for a new contract this year ultimately fails, there’s no reason to think he’ll go backwards in his development because of that as he’s still on the right side of 30 years of age and generally speaking, doesn’t have a lot of football miles on his team-listed 6-9, 320-pound body.
In addition to him needing to be more consistent for a full season as a pass protector in 2017, Villanueva will also need to improve his run blocking play. As a team last season, the Steelers offense averaged 4.70 yards per carry on runs that were scored as going to the left side of the center and that was only good for 17th place league-wide.
It should be noted, however, that yards per carry doesn’t tell the whole rushing story on left side runs as their 10 rushing touchdowns last season to that side tied them with the Buffalo Bills for the most in the league. Additionally, 46.7% of the 135 total runs to the left side last year during the regular season resulted in successful plays.
So, with all the above noted, do you see Villanueva as potentially being known as one of the NFL’s top 10 left tackles come this same time next year?