Steelers' Villanueva Keeps Football First

Alejandro Villanueva can't promise he'll be at training camp as his contract negotiations continue. He heads up a Steelers notebook that includes details on both a new dime safety and slot corner.

PITTSBURGH -- Alejandro Villanueva finds himself in a peculiar negotiating position, but his professional pride won't allow him to hold out. Yet.

"Because I have to get so much better," Villanueva explained about his attendance at every Pittsburgh Steelers voluntary OTA practice this spring.

Villanueva has yet to sign his exclusive-rights free agency tender as he and the Steelers try to hammer out a long-term extension. But Villanueva did sign a waiver allowing him to practice this spring, because, "It's a matter of what is it that I need as a player. And then all of the other decisions will sort themselves out." 

It's a tricky negotiation for both sides because Villanueva, who'll turn 29 in September, is a starting left tackle who blossomed early in his career, but who, because of a late start following his Army commitment, will be a relatively old first-time free agent.

And he doesn't have much leverage right now. As an exclusive rights free agent, he has no option other than to sit out and return next year with the same contractual status. After his ERFA season, he's still a restricted free agent. At the earliest, he can become an unrestricted free agent in 2019 as he approaches his 31st birthday.

The Steelers are sympathetic to Villanueva's lowly contractual status and are looking to pay him for his sudden improvement last season, his first as the full-time starter. But the Steelers also realize that a middle ground will be difficult to reach at a position which pays average starters $11 to $13 million per season. The Steelers are obligated to pay Villanueva only $615,000 this season and at most $4 million in 2018.

The Steelers also have their own pay scale to consider. All-Pro offensive linemen Maurkice Pouncey and David DeCastro average $9 and $10 million per season, respectively. Right tackle Marcus Gilbert is working on a contract that pays him an average of $6 million per season.

Villanueva wouldn't talk about the specifics Thursday with reporters.

"It's all my agent," he said. "I don't check in."

Does Villanueva allow the situation to worry him?

"I don't," he said. "I play pool with Kevin (Colbert) after practice. It's something we don't talk about. I'm trying to get better, and whatever happens happens. It's not something I can control."

Is there any way Villanueva won't show up for training camp?

"I don't know," he said. "Again, that's not my issue to solve. It's just a negotiation that's between my agent and the front office. I'm in a much better position than I was two years ago, in terms of my education and the things that I've accomplished in my life that allow me to have job security. I'm obviously trying to be a Steeler, but it's something my agent and the front office will have to sort out."


The team's most recent free-agent signing, 218-pound safety Daimion Stafford, was used for the first time this spring as the third safety next to linebacker Ryan Shazier on pass downs.

Stafford confirmed he took those reps with the first team Thursday, and said it caught him by surprise. 

"They just called my name and I went in," he said.

Stafford played the "dime linebacker" position with the Tennessee Titans during parts of the last four seasons.

"I think it can help us out," said Shazier. "We've played quarters and dime before and it's nothing really new to me. We just have to talk to those guys, get information to those guys so we're all on the same page. Once we're all on the same page, it helps, especially with coverage on certain downs and distances."

The last few seasons, the Steelers used 201-pound Robert Golden in that role. Stafford might be a better fit against the run.

"In certain situations, if it's like third-and-4, some teams might run the ball," Shazier said. "(Dime safeties) don't hurt us, but a linebacker in that spot definitely helps more against the run."


Does a defense celebrate after stopping the first-team offense during a two-minute drill in the spring? 

Even if Ben Roethlisberger's not there?

"I don't think there are bets on the line, but yeah," said Shazier. "A lot of us are alpha males and all of us are really competitive, so every opportunity we get we always try to win."

That's why Shazier and his defensive mates mobbed Mike Hilton after the first-year cornerback intercepted Landry Jones in the end zone in the waning seconds of the drill.

Hilton and Senquez Golson were the starting cornerbacks for Ole Miss in the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Those 5-8 3/4-inch cornerbacks combined for 13 interceptions in 2014 before Golson (with 10) was drafted by the Steelers in 2015. 

Hilton played one more season at Ole Miss before signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars after the 2016 draft. He was cut in August and spent a week on the New England practice squad. The Patriots cut Hilton in September and he signed with the Steelers' practice squad last December.

Like Golson, Hilton is listed at 5-9 by the Steelers. He's alternating with Will Gay as the No. 1 slot cornerback this spring.

"Mike's been doing a really good job," Shazier said. "He's really grasping the concept of what we're trying to do, and when we put him in he really does a great job of it. He shows that he can make plays. He has good footwork. He was with us last year for a little while so he understands what we're trying to do. I think he's ready to go."

(This week on the Pay Side: Did The Steelers Find Their Punt Returner? and a festive interview with Maurkice Pouncey & Ramon Foster.)

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