Now that we’ve wrapped up the Ranking the Rooms: AFC North series here at Steelers Depot, it’s time to turn our attention to the Ranking the Starters series for the Steelers.
For clarity’s sake, we’ll run down the 24 starters, which include kicker and punter, but not long snapper or returners. Offensively, I’m going to rank the starters based on a three-wide set, with one tight end, meaning no fullback (sorry Rosie Nix fans). Defensively, I’m going to roll with the Steelers’ 3-4 defense, even though they run their nickel package much more than the actual 3-4 defense. So that means no Mike Hilton in this list.
Additionally, this list is based off my own personal rankings regarding skills, not value to the team like I did two years ago.
I’ll run down this group of 24 players in groups of three, making for an eight-piece series. Today, we’ll take a look at No. 15-13
Last season’s list:
No. 24 – Jordan Berry
No. 23 – Ross Cockrell
No. 22 – Eli Rogers
No. 21 – Jesse James
No. 20 – Artie Burns
No. 19 – Vince Williams
No. 18 – Bud Dupree
No. 17 – Chris Boswell
No. 16 – Ramon Foster
No. 15- Alejandro Villanueva
No. 14 – Javon Hargrave
No. 13 – James Harrison
This season’s list
No. 24 – Jordan Berry
No. 23 – Tyler Matakevich
No. 22 – Sean Davis
No. 21 – Bud Dupree
No. 20 – James Washington
No. 19 – Artie Burns
No. 18 – Jesse James
No. 17 – Vince Williams
No. 16 – Javon Hargrave
Let’s take a look at this year’s starters, ranked No. 15-13.
No. 15 – TJ Watt, OLB
Watt came on very strong last season, opening up the season on the road at Cleveland with six tackles, two sacks and an interception. But after that opening-week performance, Watt recorded just five sacks and 48 tackles over 14 games.
That’s not bad for a rookie, especially in the Steelers’ defense for a first-year player. However, it seemed to leave a portion of the Steelers’ fan base wanting more from Watt, and rightfully so.
It’s important to remember Watt dropped into coverage a ton last season, resulting in a low number of sacks. That being said, Watt is a terrific athlete who gives the Steelers some serious athleticism and versatility at outside linebacker.
It sounds like Watt and Bud Dupree will switch sides this year, allowing Watt to rush the passer a bit more this season. I expect a big jump from Watt in his second year. We saw flashes of it as a rookie.
No. 14 — Alejandro Villanueva, OL
Despite making his first Pro Bowl last season, Big Al rises just one spot in the rankings this year. That’s not a knock on Villlanueva, who was brilliant at times last season; it’s just that his play throughout the season didn’t warrant a Pro Bowl in the end.
Villanueva is certainly a starting-caliber left tackle in this league, and I do expect him to take another step forward this season as a run blocker and pass protector. He’s no longer just a feel-good story, he’s a good player in the NFL, regardless of his backstory.
Speed rushers still give AV fits off the edge, but he’s gotten better with his athleticism and technique.
No. 13 — Ramon Foster, OL
Arguably one of the most underrated offensive linemen in football, all Ramon Foster does is produce week after week along the interior of a loaded Steelers offensive line.
Foster won’t make Pro Bowls, and he won’t show up anywhere on All-Pro first or second teams, but he’s as steady as they come on the Steelers’ offensive line, opening up holes in the run game as a road grader, and he protects Ben Roethlisberger quite well.
Last season, Foster had a tough task of playing alongside Alejandro Villanueva, who struggled at times despite making a Pro Bowl. Foster helped Villanueva stay afloat at tackle in some rough matchups, all without dropping his own level of play.
Foster has to be one of the more underappreciated Steelers in the last decade or so. From undrafted to steady starter, he’s been a great piece for the offense.