Over the last 15 years or so, the Steelers’ history with left tackles has been an interesting one. Marvell Smith did an admirable job, earning his way to the Pro Bowl before back injuries derailed his career. Their on-again-off-again relationship with Max Starks was unique, to say the least, at one time paying him starter money to sit the bench and, at other times, paying him a pittance to start.
And we will never forget Jonathan Scott, whose infamous “butt block” made using one’s posterior in pursuit of one’s occupation a thing long before Mark Sanchez’s “butt fumble” made it the, err, “butt” of football jokes everywhere.
Then, along came Kelvin Beachum, Jr. Beachum could easily be the poster boy for this series. From nearly being the 2012 NFL Draft’s “Mister Irrelevant” to becoming a borderline All-Pro tackle, Beachum has been the recipient of his own Torch of Trepidation.
Now, he’s passing it on. And, had the likely recipient of that torch not already started 12 games in 2015, we would likely be filled with far more dread than we ever were with Beachum.
The two players could hardly be more different. Beachum is an undersized offensive lineman whose build is far from ideal for an NFL-level blindside blocker. His long legs and short torso give him an undesirably high center of gravity. He’s not particularly strong or athletic, which would appear at first glance to put him severely at odds with the scheme designed by offensive line coach Mike Munchak. At 6’3”, he lacks ideal height. He’s a soft-spoken, even-keeled player and an all-around nice guy.
His replacement is 6’9” and, while the scale seems to be magnified a bit when looking at him, possesses the ideal length and body configuration for left tackle. He’s about the leanest lineman in the league and as fit and athletic as they come -- that tends to happen with former U.S. Army Rangers. And he’s got a nasty streak that, while paling in comparison to that of backup center Cody Wallace, certainly has played a role in his rapid climb from practice-squad defensive end to starting offensive left tackle.
About the only way these two could be more obviously different is if one of them was a female. Night and day just doesn’t do the comparison justice.
Despite that, though, and aside from a few early hiccups, the Steelers’ offensive line hardly missed a beat in 2015 after losing Beachum for the year to a knee injury. So, given the choice between a pending free-agent who played well enough to earn a massive contract — but with the unknown of recovery from a severe injury — and a young, inexperienced player with a seemingly literal ton of potential and a borderline amazing ability to learn and adapt quickly, the Steelers chose to let the veteran walk.
Their bed has been made. The question is whether the guy sleeping in it will bring sweet dreams, or outright nightmares.
From where I sit, I lean more toward sweet dreams. And that’s not just because of my black-and-gold-tinted, hypocycloid-shaped glasses, either. Villanueva is the real deal.
On the surface, it would seem the team doesn’t share my enthusiasm, having signed free-agent left tackle Ryan Harris from the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. Harris started the entire 2015 season, which ended with quarterback Peyton Manning lifting his second Lombardi Trophy.
But the coaching staff is on record saying the competition will be an open one. And I fully expect the winner to be the one who is best at adjusting and adapting. I assume that will be Villanueva. Thinking quickly and adjusting to the situation tends to be the norm for people in a war zone, a place “Big Al” found himself on more than one occasion. If you need to see how he adapts, just look at how he progressed throughout the 2015 season.
In the end, I have little reason to bet against Villanueva. Don’t let Harris’ status as a starter for a Super Bowl-winning team fool you — he got the spot through injuries, just like Villanueva. And, while he has more experience at the position, I have to imagine the team will go with the guy who has experience in the Steelers’ offensive system already, unless Big Al puts up a stinker of a pre-season. He’s overcome every other challenge in front of him, from making the NFL from a school (West Point) where football was a distant umpteenth in priority, behind things such as officer etiquette and mere survival against armed enemies, to making the Steelers’ roster as an offensive lineman despite having never played a snap there in his life.
Besides, the man gets a glow in his eyes when he talks about his time in combat. Would you want to be the guy to tell him he lost his starting job?