Every year inevitably brings change in just about any context. In the NFL, it is in the context of the shuffling of players via free agency and retirement, and for the Pittsburgh Steelers, particularly along the offensive line, they know that their time together is drawing to a close.
Having already parted over the past two years with two mainstays in Marcus Gilbert and Ramon Foster, the latter retiring in 2020, another member of the core group is up for unrestricted free agency in March in left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, and needless to say, retaining him will be…challenging given the salary cap situation.
Villanueva has been Ben Roethlisberger’s primary blindside protector since 2015, and has made a couple of Pro Bowls along the way. Though he may have had a rough game or two, overall, the 2020 season has been one of his better years overall, and he won’t be easily replaced, even if they try to swing Chukwuma Okorafor over to the left side.
His absence in the starting lineup will be significant, but it will hit on a more personal level for his fellow linemates, something that David DeCastro discussed with the media yesterday, knowing that any game now could be their last together.
“It’s been fun. It’s kind of been surreal, kind of thinking this may be the last year together”, he told reporters. “You never know the business side of it. We both know, everyone knows what it is. But it’s been fun. It’s been great getting to know him”.
“He’s a great person, a great personality. Loves to argue”, he added. “A lot of random conversations, politics, the economy, maybe a couple war stories earlier on when he was still closer to that time in his life. Just being friends and being there for each other is great, especially in this business when you’re stressed out. If one guys’ having a bad day, the others can pick him up. It’s great. It’s been a lot of fun”.
Though he might not necessarily be a big fan of talking to the media, Villanueva has consistently been among the most thoughtful interviews on the team, though the same could be said for DeCastro, who, along with Maurkice Pouncey, are winding down their careers.
As disappointing as it is to say, the time is now to begin the turnover at the position. Okorafor seems to have locked down a job at this point, and Kevin Dotson will have another. If they retain Zach Banner, then he can hold down the right tackle position. But they will soon need replacements for DeCastro and Pouncey as well, in addition to Feiler and Villanueva.