Roster Turnover 2021: T Alejandro Villanueva

Roster turnover is an inevitability in this league, but the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster has changed considerably since the end of last season, with many players who have been important to this franchise now gone, either retired, in limbo, or in another uniform. As we wind down the time until training camp opens, it feels appropriate to acknowledge the old faces that we’ll no longer be seeing on the sidelines this year.

That includes Pro Bowlers and former high draft picks, as well as undrafted free agents of varying accomplishment. Four losses along the offensive line, multiple departures at linebacker and in the secondary, and other changes mixed in, will make for a rather different roster.

All the same, there are the steady presences that remain: the Ben Roethlisbergers, the T.J. Watts, the Cameron Heywards. Who will be the next long-term faces? Minkah Fitzpatrick will certainly be one. What about Cameron Sutton? Zach Banner? Kevin Dotson? Devin Bush? When will their names be included in this retrospective?

T Alejandro Villanueva

6 seasons

In a way, it feels as though Alejandro Villanueva spent longer than just six seasons with the Steelers. Of course, he technically did, since he was on the practice squad the year before first making the 53-man roster in 2015.

But he developed into such a fixture over the years that he felt every bit a part of the Steelers’ core offensive line as the likes of David DeCastro and Marcus Gilbert. It doesn’t hurt that he was able to make a couple of Pro Bowls. But now he’s in black and purple instead of black and gold.

According to Villanueva himself, the Steelers informed him early on that they did not intend to bring him back this season, likely having much to do with their dire salary cap situation. He remained unsigned until after the compensatory period ended the first Monday after the draft, signing with the Baltimore Ravens in early May on a two-year deal after they traded right tackle Orlando Brown Jr.

Now Pittsburgh must find a way to replace him. The most immediate candidate is Chukwuma Okorafor, the fourth-year tackle who entered the 2020 season as the swing lineman, but who ended up starting 16 games on the right side after Zach Banner tore his ACL in the opener.

While there have been some charges that Villanueva’s play had declined in recent years, and run-blocking was never his strength—that’s hard to do when you’re 6’9” and behind in the leverage game—it’s certainly not clear that Okorafor will be an even trade, let alone an upgrade.

It’s possible that Okorafor is more comfortable on the left side than the right, and that will lead to a higher level of play. Alternatively, rookie fourth-round pick Dan Moore Jr. could push him for the job this summer. Veteran Joe Haeg was also signed in free agency, but if he’s starting, there likely is an issue.

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