PITTSBURGH -- Turning a journeyman practice squad player into a serviceable option on the 53-man roster is considered a mild upset.
Turning one into a potential long-term solution at left tackle reaches David Tyree levels of difficulty.
This is happening in Pittsburgh.
Alejandro Villanueva had spent time with three different teams before Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spotted him across from him during the national anthem in August 2014. Villanueva was a 6-foot-9 defensive lineman for the Eagles. He had already been released by the Bengals, who worked Villanueva at tight end.
Ten days later, Tomlin signed him to the practice squad. About four months later, Villanueva had a reserve/futures contract. Nearly a year after that, Villanueva is catching the attention of skilled offensive line evaluators who see potential greatness in him.
Once an intriguing offseason story about a former Army Ranger who did three tours in Afghanistan, Villanueva has turned into something more:
“He moves so well for his size,” said former Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley, who runs an Arizona-based offensive line academy for NFL prospects. “You hearken back to Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden; for their size they were able to move in a manner to someone much smaller. [Villanueva] is a very large human being but doesn’t move like a large, lumbering person.
“He has a chance to be a pretty special player.”
Bentley said Villanueva is still relatively raw when it comes to technique, but he likes his mean streak and the fact his game hasn’t been tainted. Learning the left tackle position in his 20s can actually be an advantage, Bentley said, because the Steelers can teach him one way.
To be sure, previous starter Kelvin Beachum, out for the year with a torn anterior cruciate ligament, is a solid left tackle. But Beachum is a free agent after this season, and Villanueva is cheaper. He is under contract at $525,000 next year.
The Steelers could decide to keep both, but Villanueva isn’t going anywhere in 2016.
Villanueva has been on a crash course to become valuable in the eyes of Steelers coaches and higher-ups. He asks guard David DeCastro questions that border on annoyance, from postgame nutrition to weightlifting to recovering from a bad game. Villanueva gave up two sacks in his debut at Kansas City. DeCastro told him that he also had a rough rookie game, against Dallas. It gets better.
As Villanueva has found out, most franchises aren’t this patient.
“I’ve been trying to get in the NFL for five years and no one really ever gave me a chance [before Pittsburgh],” Villanueva said. “You always have something inside of you that says you can still do it. I’ll try to do my best to be as appealing to the front office as possible.”
That process includes studying elite left tackles -- particularly the Browns’ Joe Thomas and the Cowboys’ Tyron Smith -- inside the Steelers’ video room. He’s working on “staying square” to the target like Thomas does. He wants “great punch” and perfectly bent knees like Smith.
After gaining around 100 pounds in the past few years, Villanueva said he’s lost a few pounds and has leveled out at around 330, where he wants to stay. He’s learning how to manage a left tackle’s frame.
He’s meticulous with game study and teammate Q&As because he wants to be great. But it’s also self-protection after years of being told no.
“I don’t feel I was given the right answer,” Villanueva said. “A lot of times [teams] cannot spend time developing a player. So if an NFL coach tells me to do something, I’m not going to believe him.”
If Villanueva maintains his play, he’ll be hearing yes more often.
“That’s not easy being thrown in, and he’s responded well,” Bentley said. “He’s just going out there and playing really hard, and it’s working.”