Although the season is still ongoing for a few more weeks, the Pittsburgh Steelers are unfortunately a part of the majority of the league that is already in progress with their offseason mode, making preparations for the 2021 season calendar, beginning with preparations for signing players to futures contracts and things of that nature.
As almost always, one of the biggest hurdles facing the team this offseason will be their salary cap situation, a multi-pronged discussion that involves who might retire, who might be released, who might be restructured or extended, and so on and so forth.
Having already begun the turnover a couple of years ago, there figures to be even more change coming along the offensive line, with three of the five players who opened the regular season as starters scheduled to be unrestricted free agents.
The most significant name in that group is left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, a two-time Pro Bowler who was perhaps the Steelers’ best lineman this year—which is not necessarily saying much. He is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career at the age of 32.
And if you heed the words of Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, you ought not anticipate his returning to the team in 2021, after spending the bulk of the past six seasons as the blindside protector for Ben Roethlisberger.
In an article previewing the team’s salary cap situation for the upcoming season, the veteran beat writer highlighted three pending free agents in particular, with the left tackle being one and JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner being the other two.
“Villanueva, who has started 90 consecutive games since 2015 for the fourth-longest streak among offensive linemen in the league, will not be re-signed”, he wrote flatly, though he does not in any way offer an indication that this is anything other than speculation on his part.
Villanueva has been the best blindside protector the Steelers have had for many years since the days of Marvel Smith. Assuming that he departs in free agency, the likely move would be for them to move Chukwuma Okorafor from right tackle to left tackle.
Okorafor competed with Zach Banner to open the season as the starting right tackle, but lost. Banner suffered a season-ending knee injury in the opener, however, and Okorafor filled in for the rest of the season.
Banner is also scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, but with less than one full start under his belt and coming off of a torn ACL, it’s unlikely that he will have much of a robust market, making it a reasonable prospect that he is re-signed and starts at right tackle.