PITTSBURGH -- Three Pittsburgh Steelers starters don't have contracts for 2017 -- at least technically.
Left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and first-round rookie pass-rusher T.J. Watt are not signed, yet there they were on the Pittsburgh Steelers practice field for the first week of organized team activities. They likely had to sign a waiver just to take the field out of good faith.
Then there's running back Le'Veon Bell, whose rights belong to Pittsburgh because of the $12.1-million franchise tag, but there's no long-term deal yet and he technically hasn't signed anything. Bell is recovering from a groin injury and is not on the field yet.
Bell and the Steelers hope to reach a new contract before the July 15 deadline. Watt, as one of a handful of first-round picks yet to sign, should get his situation resolved soon. He's not a favorite to start, but if the team decides to rest 39-year-old James Harrison early in the season, Watt could be a No. 1 alongside Bud Dupree.
Villanueva's contract situation, however, has become one of the more interesting ones in the league. He's an exclusive rights free agent, which means he can sign a tender worth around $615,000. The 28-year-old knows he's worth more than the minimum. The former Army Ranger has lived around the world and is attending Carnegie Mellon business school, so walking away from football isn't unthinkable.
Here's a potential issue: The Steelers' right tackle, Marcus Gilbert, is one of the league's best, so Pittsburgh won't be eager to pay Villaneuva more than Gilbert's $6.1 million per year. But the current left tackle market pays more than that (See: all The slightly above average left tackles who got $10 million per year in free agency). And Gilbert himself seems to be stumping for Villanueva to get more, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Villanueva would be a restricted free agent in 2018, so owning his rights for two years gives the Steelers leverage. Plus, the team likes second-year tackle Jerald Hawkins. Still, with nearly $20 million in cap space and Villanueva only getting better, the Steelers might allocate a portion for Big Al.