You can never have too many capable offensive linemen on your roster in the NFL.
Let’s get this simple fact out of the way first, because it seems as if the Pittsburgh Steelers are in this position heading into the 2017 season. Marcus Gilbert and Alejandro Villanueva, both starters, are returning for the 2017 season, and Chris Hubbard and Jerald Hawkins will likely back up both positions throughout the season.
All seems well and good on the home front, except Villanueva is an Exclusive Rights Free Agent (ERFA) and has yet to sign his tender. The move isn’t unique, but the fact Villanueva is still at the team’s Organized Team Activities (OTAs) and working out is.
If Villanueva were to sign his tender it would pay him roughly $615,000 for this season. Not a huge pay day for a two-year starter at left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers. However, for those wondering why he would risk injury when trying to get a new contract, Jeremy Fowler of ESPN reports Villanueva did sign a waiver/participation agreement, which pays him the tendered amount if he's hurt in organized team activities.
Villanueva, 28 years-old, is looking for a long-term contract, and why wouldn’t he? He has been a part of one of the NFL’s top offensive lines the past two seasons since he took over for injured Kelvin Beachum.
Entering training camp last year, Villanueva beat out free agent acquisition Ryan Harris for the starting job, but it isn’t a free agent who could be giving the Steelers pause with contract negotiations, but second year tackle from LSU Jerald Hawkins.
I’m not suggesting Hawkins will beat out Villanueva for the starting left tackle position, nor will he likely push Marcus Gilbert on the right side of the line, but Hawkins provides the Steelers with an alternative, and youth, at the tackle position. Per Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Steelers control Villanueva for the next two seasons, but won’t overpay for his services when he will be 30 upon hitting unrestricted free agency.
Hawkins impressed coaches throughout the offseason and training camp last year, but a shoulder injury landed him on injured reserve before his rookie season even started. Hawkins, a fourth round draft choice in the 2016 NFL Draft who was encouraged to stay at LSU another season, is raw, but also extremely talented. If the Steelers sign Villanueva for anything more than a 3-year deal, they would also have to think about giving Hawkins a new deal after his rookie contract expires.
By all accounts this offseason, Hawkins is both getting comfortable, and impressing yet again.
“I felt comfortable,” Hawkins told Fittipaldo. “All of those guys are starting to trust me even more. Just being with those guys last year and learning the playbook, I wasn’t able to do the physical part, but learning the mental part helped me out tremendously.”
“Hawk has heavy hands,” Bud Dupree said. “It’s always good for offensive linemen to have heavy hands. He reminds you of [Gilbert]. He and Gil are both very athletic. He can play both sides, too. That‘s a plus for him.”
In a perfect world, Hawkins would learn behind Villanueva and be ready to step in as Villanueva prepares to hit unrestricted free agency, making the transition at left tackle as seamless as possible. But that isn’t how contract negotiations work, and the Steelers are running a business. Sometimes feelings get hurt.
This is certainly a storyline to watch as the offseason unfolds. Will the Steelers give Villanueva what he thinks he deserves, or will the team wait for him to sign his tender and get to work while under contract? Either way, Hawkins, and his ridiculous potential, will throw a wrench in the contract negotiations which seem to be ongoing between Villanueva and the Steelers.