What do big-money LT contracts mean for Steelers' Alejandro Villanueva?

PITTSBURGH -- The exorbitant contracts for left tackles in this free-agency cycle accentuate what coaches and personnel evaluators have been saying privately for quite some time:

There's a scarcity of elite offensive tackle talent coming out of recent drafts.

The result is a foursome of Russell Okung, Andrew Whitworth, Riley Reiff and Matt Kalil earning contracts averaging a combined $47.25 million in per-year payouts. All four players now rank in the NFL's top 11 in this category. Whitworth has made a stellar late-career push, but some of the others on this list aren't outdistancing the Browns' Joe Thomas on the Hall of Fame trail.

This trend brings us to Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva, who is listed as "inactive" in the NFLPA database. Villanueva is one a handful of Steelers "exclusive rights free agents" alongside running back Fitzgerald Toussaint, kicker Chris Boswell, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton and others. Basically, these players receive a one-year tender at a low-end rate for league standards, usually somewhere between $540,000 and $690,000.

Villanueva is the only Steelers' ERFA listed as inactive in those player records. Save a mysterious site glitch, Villanueva's absence suggests he either hasn't signed his tender or has no plans to sign it.

Villanueva is a 28-year-old former Army Ranger who's currently earning a graduate degree at Carnegie Mellon University. Is it worth playing another year as a tackle on one of the league's best lines for the league minimum when the rest of the starting line comprises $33.05 million of the team's salary cap?


But that question could prompt talks of a contract extension, if they haven't already. Considering the ever-growing salary cap, the Steelers -- who have $18.8 million in cap space, according to overthecap.com -- might be smart to get ahead of this now and sign Villanueva to a deal that both sides consider comfortable.

If there's a negotiating knock on Villaneuva, it would be his relative inexperience. After replacing the injured Kelvin Beachum in October 2015, Villanueva has made 26 regular-season starts, much fewer than the aforementioned tackles with big payouts. Once an undrafted free agent bouncing around the league, the 6-foot-9 Villanueva was pegged as a defensive end or a wide receiver until the Steelers saw him as a tackle. Veteran offensive line coach Mike Munchak deserves much credit for Villanueva's development. And make no mistake, the Steelers' primary tackle isn't on the left side. It's right tackle Marcus Gilbert.

But Villanueva has capitalized on his opportunity, too. While rating Pittsburgh the league's third-best offensive line, Pro Football Focus said Villanueva "upped his game dramatically and surrendered just one sack over the final 10 weeks of the season, all while crushing players at times in the run game." The player teammates call 'Big Al' has earned the trust of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and others.

Build on that scouting report and perhaps Villanueva will be looking for more money than Kalil, whom he's outplayed over the last two years by most accounts.

The Steelers have done minimal work in free agency thus far, which is customary for them, but perhaps their inaction says more about young, in-house players such as Villaneuva and defensive end Stephon Tuitt than it does the open market.

Signing Villanueva probably won't require outrageous money, but void of a more secure next two to three years, it would be no surprise if Villanueva stays "inactive" a while longer.