The Pittsburgh Steelers were blessed with some of the best and most consistent offensive line play over the course of the past half-decade-plus, between 2014 and 2019, thanks to the likes of Maurkice Pouncey, David DeCastro, Ramon Foster, Marcus Gilbert, Matt Feiler, Alejandro Villanueva, Kelvin Beachum, and others in between.
This coincided not just with a major investment in talent—four first- and second-round picks at the position in a three-year span from 2010 to 2012—but also with the hiring of one of the premiere offensive line coaches in the game in 2014, that being Mike Munchak.
Unfortunately, Munchak departed last year, and now the talent is beginning to leave and to fade as well. Gilbert was traded last year. Foster retired this year. Now, Villanueva (as well as Feiler) is scheduled to be a free agent in 2021, and the Steelers are already over next year’s cap floor.
While it seems as though many are ready to let him go, they may hesitate when they realize that his reputation on the field (though not off the field) may be higher outside of Pittsburgh than it is inside—especially since opinions about offensive line play are down across the board based on last season.
Pro Football Focus recently published a list of the top 25 offensive tackles heading into the 2020 season, and Villanueva made the cut, ranking 17th, though noting that he ranked higher in pass protection, which they deem more important, than his ranking indicates. Anthony Treash writes:
Villanueva has been a consistent, above-average pass-protector over the last four seasons. His pass-block grade in that span is the 13th-best among qualifying tackles. What ultimately brings him down is the below-average 59.8 run-block grade he posted in 2019 (45th at the position). We’ll take great pass-protectors over run-blockers any day of the week in today’s NFL, and Villanueva fits the bill there.
The Steelers originally signed Villanueva to their practice squad in 2014 after playing against him in a preseason game—as a defensive lineman—with the Philadelphia Eagles. They converted him to tackle and developed him for a year.
In 2015, with Mike Adams ending up spending the entire year on the PUP list due to a back injury, Villanueva entered the season as the top backup. Then Kelvin Beachum tore his ACL five games in to the season, and the former Army Ranger was called upon to take over. He has started every game since then.
Entering the 2017 season, Villanueva agreed to a four-year, $24 million contract as an exclusive rights free agent with two years of accrued experience. He has made the Pro Bowl twice in the three seasons he has played since then. Though he will be 33 when he hits free agency, he figures to command a big price tag on the open market. Currently, there are 22 tackles whose contracts average $10 million per season or greater, reaching $22 million per with Laremy Tunsil’s new deal earlier this offseason.