Inside the NFL contract that two Steelers won't sign

PITTSBURGH -- Alejandro Villanueva considered walking away from football in 2017. He was 28 years old and beginning business school at Carnegie Mellon. His exclusive-rights free-agent status kept him on league-minimum money despite two years as a starter at left tackle.

So in 2017, Villanueva worked out with the Pittsburgh Steelers but didn't sign his exclusive-rights tender. Hours before the training camp reporting window expired, the Steelers signed him to a four-year, $24 million deal.

"I can’t say if it’s better to sign now or later," said Villanueva during this week's minicamp, entering his third year on that deal. "But betting on yourself, in this business, usually works."

Intentionally or not, Villanueva set a precedent in the Steelers locker room that at least one player is following.

Steelers cornerback Mike Hilton finds himself in a similar situation, an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA) who refuses to sign the tender, at least for now.

The two have discussed the matter, Hilton said, and though Hilton isn't divulging the nature of those talks, he calls Villanueva "a guy I can go to with questions."

These are shared experiences of a tapped market.

ERFAs are players with expired contracts and two years or fewer of accrued NFL seasons. Teams can retain them on a one-year tender at a low number (around $645,000) with no negotiation and no chance for the player to shop his services. Right tackle Matt Feiler, who started 10 games last season, signed his tender this offseason.

Restricted free agents have three years of experience, and players get a bigger amount for that experience (guard B.J. Finney is set to make $3.095 million on a second-round tender).

This is a way for owners to keep good undrafted players before they can cash out. Hilton wants out of that scenario after two productive years as a slot corner for Pittsburgh.

But what Villanueva pulled off is "very rare," said former NFL agent Brodie Waters, a consultant who runs ESPN's Roster Management System. He estimates fewer than 10 players under the current collective bargaining agreement have landed new deals during their ERFA year.

"The player has zero leverage other than retiring," Waters said. "It would be extremely rare for the Steelers to do anything unless they identify they really want him, and he's willing to take a below-market deal. If he's played two years, they've got him for two more years. There's not a lot of incentive to do something."

Hilton's situation is complicated. He tackles well and ranks highly by Pro Football Focus for his play. He also suffered a few late-season struggles that included scout-team work in Week 15.

Villanueva's premium position and no viable options behind him likely helped his cause. And perhaps the Steelers knew signing him two years later would cost twice the amount. Villanueva, a Pro Bowler, considered that possibility before signing his deal.

Hilton has thought about that, too, but he knows where he wants to be.

"It's too early to see what's gonna happen, but I want to show the team I want to be here and want to be a part of this organization," said Hilton, who doesn't have plans to retire. "I wouldn't say it’s a real tough situation because at the end of the day, it’s still a nice opportunity. As players, you feel like of course you want to earn more. Either way it works out, I’m excited. Hopefully things work out in the long run, but if not, I'll do my best to go out there and help this team win."

Still, Villanueva feels for Hilton. He knows firsthand uncertainty over a contract is "not fun." Plus, as a former practice squad player, he knows Hilton didn't get an accrued season toward free agency for his 2016 work on multiple practice squads.

Villanueva believes the Steelers know that's a tough predicament for good players.

"You don’t want to have a guy in the locker room who’s not happy with his contract, especially when he has the backing of his teammates," Villanueva said. "He’s been about it the right way. He’s shown up every single day, not making it a big deal. For that, he gets a lot of respect from all of us."

The Steelers will soon show if Villanueva's deal was an anomaly or a new precedent. Hilton is prepared for anything.

"It's just part of the business," Hilton said. "There are always steps to the business. Sometimes you have to fall in line with how it's going and eventually things will work out in your favor."