Steelers must draft Villanueva’s replacement in 2020

Alejandro Villanueva has been one of the Steelers best values on the Steelers for the past few years. However, the team could opt to replace him in the draft.

Looking over the roster right now, there are very few true positions of need. Even without a first-round pick this year, the Steelers are in a great position to field a complete roster next season. While the team still has obvious holes on the roster that need to be filled, most of those have been relegated to depth needs that won’t require a high round pick to step in and instantly contribute. Even with limited draft picks and no first-round picks, the Steelers are in a decent spot when it comes to the draft, and thus should be in a position to draft the best player available.

Looking over the incoming class, the Steelers would be wise to select a tackle with their first pick with the intention of him replacing Alejandro Villanueva in 2021. While this may seem off to some fans, there are a wide variety of reasons that there needs to be a different blindside protector for the Steelers.

Starting first with Villanueva, he has been nothing short of fantastic since coming to the Steelers in 2014. He has been a constant starter and considering his story, detailed here, is an inspiration to a lot of fans. That all said, he is entering a contract year and will turn 32 this upcoming season. Offensive linemen do have a longer shelf life though and considering Villanueva began playing in his mid-twenties, it isn’t unrealistic to believe he has 2-3 years of solid play left in him.

While age is a concern, what is going to cause a bigger issue is money. Currently, Villanueva is on the last year of his 4-year, 24-million-dollar contract. His 6 million average per year makes him the 18th highest-paid player at his position. Considering his solid, consistent play, Villanueva will likely want a contract that puts him in the 5th-10th best-paid at his position, or between 13-14.5 million dollars per year.

This isn’t to say Villanueva isn’t worth that kind of money, especially since he has been playing on such a discount. His play deserves a contract in that range. The issue is that the Steelers have some talented options entering their contract years. JuJu Smith-Schuster, James Conner, Cam Heyward, Bud Dupree, Matt Feiler, and Mike Hilton are the brunt of it, as well as T.J. Watt who will be looking for a blockbuster extension. While the salary cap may rise, that means players’ contracts will, rightfully, rise as well. With all of this talent needing new deals, giving a big-money deal to Villanueva may not be in the cards.

The biggest factor in all of this is how deep the top of this OT class is. While there are quite a few deep positions in this upcoming draft (WR is by far the deepest), the OT is stellar for the first three rounds but falls off after that. Even with the top options likely to be selected in the first round, options 5-10 on the CBS Big Board could easily be first-round talents in other classes.

Looking over the past three draft classes, the number of OT’s selected before pick 49 has been rather consistent; three were selected in 2017 and 2018, while 2019 saw five selected before pick 49. In other words, if this year is anything like 2019, the Steelers would be left with prospects such as Austin Jackson, Ezra Cleveland, Isaiah Wilson, or Prince Tega Wanogho. While all these players aren’t perfect prospects, each has legitimate starting potential on either side of the offensive line and would likely be first-round picks if this class was weaker at the position overall.

Even better, there would be a clear path to playing time in their rookie year. With the retirement of Ramon Foster and the exodus of B.J. Finney, the Steelers are likely to move Feiler inside and allow recent signing Stefan Wisniewski to serve as the top interior backup on the line. So, a rookie tackle brought in would be in direct competition with Zach Banner and Chukwuma Okorafor for the starting gig on the right side. While both prospects have promise, neither could beat out Feiler last year and there are clear questions about their long-term viability as starters.

Thus, a rookie could win the job and go into 2021 with some starting experience under their belt on the right side. Assuming the money doesn’t work for Villanueva, that rookie would be able to move over and transition to the blindside. That keeps our line as a strong unit going into the last few years of the Super Bowl window.

Next: Remaining Free Agent options that the Steelers need to sign

All of this isn’t to say that Villanueva needs to be replaced next offseason, as he has been a great starter and played at an incredible value. Considering the importance of the position though, finding a young, long term option that presents incredible value at pick 49 may be too hard to pass up. Even if it isn’t the “top” need on the team, the value overall may be too hard to pass up in the 2nd round of the draft.