It doesn’t seem to be something that is brought up a whole lot, but the reality is that one of the biggest questions that the Pittsburgh Steelers would like to get an answer on very quickly is, point blank, whether or not the second half of last season was a fluke for Alejandro Villanueva.
Having just signed off on a four-year contract that includes $14 million over the course of the first two seasons—which is admittedly chump change for a quality starting left tackle, but you know the circumstances here—the Steelers agreed to that contract with an incomplete sample size, but it was a calculated risk I think they are right to expect will pay off.
Villanueva, a former Army Ranger, entered the 2015 season as the swing tackle by default due to injury, then he inherited the starting job by default, again, due to injury. Last season, the Steelers brought in competition to compete for the starting job, and while he won the job, he struggled at first.
But he got better and better as the season progressed, to the point at which I believe one could argue that, at the end of the season, he was playing at the equivalent of the level of the top five left tackles in the league.
That is not saying that he is one of the top five left tackles in the league—he could be one of them, solidifying his status this year—but the way that he was playing during that particular stretch was indicative of that sort of talent.
While he has seemingly had a very good training camp going up against T.J. Watt—though admittedly he is a rookie—a possible concussion resulted in him sitting out the first preseason game, so getting a look at him on the field tomorrow will, in my opinion, actually be a pretty big deal.
Frankly, I want to see the third-year veteran dominating people. He may not be literally paid top left tackle money because of his extenuating circumstances, but he is expected to be a top left tackle, by his team, his coaches, his teammates, and himself.
I’m not really sure on whose side any particular rusher might play, but the Falcons do have some talented young edge rushers on their team that should be able to test him out. I would like to see Villanueva shut them down, both in the pass rush and in the run game.
While he may not have come into the NFL via the traditional route, he has the physical abilities to perform at an elite level, and the coaching and the drive to get him there. I think he will. But it’s not guaranteed, so we have to see it. He has struggled before, so confirmation would not hurt.