As the Pittsburgh Steelers open their 2017 training camp on Thursday with the team reporting to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, a lot of eyes will be on second-year tackle Jerald Hawkins, the team’s fourth-round draft pick in 2016, during the remainder of the summer and with good reason.
For starters, Hawkins’ 2016 rookie season was wiped out by a shoulder injury and that means we’ve barely seen the LSU product play. In addition to that, the Steelers could certainly use another versatile tackle moving into the 2017 season and especially one that can play on the left side, which is something Hawkins did in college.
While I am still very excited about Hawkins’ future in Pittsburgh, fans of the Steelers need to pump their collective brakes a little bit when it comes to thinking he’s a threat to current starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.
Sure, Villanueva has yet to sign his exclusive rights tender that he was issued several months ago and while unlikely to happen in my honest opinion, he might decide not to report Thursday for the start of training camp. If that’s ultimately the case, all that means for Hawkins is that he’ll likely receive some extra and very much-needed practice reps on the fields of Saint Vincent College.
The growing narrative among some Steelers fans seems to be that the organization is somehow waiting to decide on whether or not to sign Villanueva to a long-term contract extension so that they can have extra time to further evaluate the progress of Hawkins. This is a dubious narrative to say the least as Hawkins still won’t have played in a meaningful game come the start of the regular season.
Sure, Hawkins looked somewhat capable last year during training camp and the one preseason game that he played in, but with that said, let’s not lose sight of the fact that he played all of 46 offensive snaps in total. In short, even if he plays another 150 preseason snaps this year, we’ll still not fully know what the team has in him until he starts playing meaningful game snaps. The same went for Villanueva a few years ago, remember?
New contract or not, Villanueva’s starting job in 2017 is safe barring injury or him deciding to sit out the entire season. To think his situation is somewhat related Hawkins is very foolish. Past this season could certainly be a different story for Hawkins depending on what ultimately happens or doesn’t happen contractually with Villanueva, but with that said, the Steelers will presumably be able to keep the former Army captain in the fold next offseason as a tendered restricted free agent if it comes to that.
For now, treat Hawkins for what he really is and that’s a second-year inexperienced player who is battling for the right to be the team’s top swing tackle in 2017. Let him accomplish that goal first and let’s take it from there.
Villanueva might be worried about a few things ahead of training camp practices getting underway this year but the fear of Hawkins of taking his starting job certainly isn’t one of them.
The Steelers decision on whether or not to sign Villanueva long-term in the coming weeks comes down to just one thing and that’s price. The leverage they have with Villanueva is related to his accrued seasons in the league and nothing more. Having Hawkins at their disposal is not leverage, it’s just another option and a very unproven one at that.