*This is the third article in the series.
Last week, the featured training camp battle was Robert Golden vs. Sean Davis. This week, we take a look at training camp battle #3, this time along the offensive line: left tackle.
When Kelvin Beachum went down with a season ending knee injury in early October, the Steelers were left with a virtual unknown protecting Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side. The former undrafted rookie from Army was a former wide receiver and tight end in college and also had played some offensive line.
The Steelers signed him to the practice squad in 2014 after he was released from Philadelphia. The Eagles had unsuccessfully attempted to transition him to defensive end.
However, Mike Tomlin and the coaching staff saw Villanueva as a tackle. His 6-9, 320 pound frame is perfectly suited for the position, particularly since he already played along the line in college. By all accounts, the former Army Ranger acquitted himself well after taking over for Beachum.
Though he had some issues throughout the year (he allowed 7 sacks and a number of hurries), he settled into the position and his play improved as the season moved forward.
He also didn’t hurt the offensive line as a whole. The unit gave up only 33 sacks (2/game) and finished 16th in the league in rushing yards per game (107.8). While there’s still room for improvement, it should also be noted that the line was minus Maurkice Pouncey for the entire season.
The fact that Kelvin Beachum was allowed to sign elsewhere this offseason would signify that the Steelers have confidence in Villanueva as a potential starter going forward.
Ryan Harris brings experience and stability to the tackle position since arriving in Pittsburgh as a free agent from the Denver Broncos. Harris signed a two-year, 3.9 million dollar contract and started all 16 games last season for the Super Bowl Champions.
Harris can also play either left or right tackle. So, even if he’s not the starter come opening day, he should still have a lock on the top backup spot at both left and right tackle and could easily replace Villanueva should he falter.
In an interview with the Post Gazette, Harris explained that he sees himself “as a veteran offensive tackle with dozens of starts and a Super Bowl championship ring that can come in and provide both leadership and talent to an already talented and well-led organization.”
Another bonus is that Harris has started 70 games during his 9-year career and is familiar with both the zone and power running blocking schemes.
In Denver, he was thought of as a “stabilizing force for the Broncos reconfigured offensive line.” He’s also durable, having played nearly 91% of the Broncos offensive snaps last season.
The Edge Goes To: Villanueva
It’s hard not to root for Villanueva, given his background and his fight to earn a spot with an NFL team. He’s got all the physical tools, the size, strength, and ability to be a starter in the league. He just needs some seasoning, which only continued play can provide.
That being said, Harris’ experience should not be discounted, and it won’t be surprising were he to slide into the position at some point. He’s definitely got the intangibles that Super Bowl teams look for in their role players.
For that reason, however, he might just prove more valuable to the team as the top backup rather than as the starter. Either way, the Steelers should be in good shape at the left tackle position, provided both players remain healthy.