Early in free agency the Baltimore Ravens tried to pry wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster away from the Pittsburgh Steelers, but the fifth-year vet shunned the Ravens and elected to return to Pittsburgh for the 2021 season. Now Baltimore has its sights on another member of Pittsburgh’s offense. On Monday morning Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reported that the Ravens are planning to bring longtime starting left tackle Alejandro Villanueva in for a visit later this week.
A piece of interesting free agent news: #Steelers FA OT Alejandro Villanueva is set to visit the #Ravens this week, league source said. With some moving parts on Baltimore’s O-line, they plan to check out Villanueva in person.
— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) April 19, 2021
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On the one hand, Villanueva—who is 6-foot-9—seems a strange fit for the run-oriented Ravens, as he’s long been considered a much better pass blocker than run blocker.
But the Ravens have a certain amount of uncertainty at the tackle position. For one, left tackle Ronnie Stanley is coming off a severe season-ending ankle injury that he suffered in a game against the Steelers on November 1, 2020. (The injury came just days after Stanley signed a five-year, $98.5 million contract extension.) Meanwhile, his temporary replacement—former starting right tackle Orlando Brown—has since requested a trade, having expressed a strong preference about wanting to remain at left tackle going forward.
Pittsburgh’s Offensive Tackle Group
If Villanueva decides to depart for Baltimore, the Steelers won’t have much in the way of proven talent at offensive tackle. The team recently re-signed Zach Banner to a two-year, $8 million contract, but Banner has yet to show he can hold down a starting job. Meanwhile, Chukwuma Okorafor—a former third-round pick—is entering the last year of the rookie contract he signed in 2018.
The Steelers also added former Tampa Bay Buccaneers guard/tackle Joe Haeg in free agency and have five offensive tackles signed to one-year Future/Reserve contracts, including former Minnesota Vikings tackle Aviante Collins. Others on one-year deals are: John Leglue, who has spent significant time on the practice squads of the Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints; and Brandon Walton, who spent most of 2020 on Pittsburgh’s practice squad after playing both left and right tackle at Florida Atlantic.
Al Villanueva’s Unique Journey to Starting Left Tackle
If Villanueva has played his last game for the Steelers, it will close a chapter on an improbable journey, as “Big Al” (a former Army Ranger), came into the league after serving three tours in Afghanistan. In May 2014 Villanueva entered the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles, signing a free agent contract five years after he last played college football for the Army Black Knights, where he served as a wide receiver, tight end and left tackle. Philadelphia tried converting Villanueva to defensive end, which is the position he was playing when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin noticed him during a preseason game against the Eagles.
After Philadelphia released Villanueva, Pittsburgh snapped him up and former Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak molded him into a starting left tackle, with his best seasons coming in 2017 and 2018, earning Pro Bowl honors after both of those campaigns.
All told, he has started 90 regular-season games for the Steelers, including every game during the past five years. While some analysts believe there’s been a noticeable decline in his play in the past year or two, Pro Football Focus rated him #28 among all offensive tackles in 2020.
That’s why some observers believe that the Steelers would like to retain Villanueva—assuming the price is right.
— Andrew Fillipponi (@ThePoniExpress) April 14, 2021
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