Former Pittsburgh Steelers offensive lineman finds new home with Baltimore Ravens

The Baltimore Sun (TNS)
Alejandro Villanueva.

The Baltimore Ravens have agreed to a two-year deal with free agent Alejandro Villanueva, the team announced Tuesday, finding a potential replacement right tackle just 11 days after they traded away Pro Bowl starter Orlando Brown Jr.

The contract is reportedly worth $14 million, with $8 million fully guaranteed.

The 6-foot-9, 320-pound Villanueva, who turns 33 in September, started 90 straight games from the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2015 to 2020. After not signing during the early waves of free agency, he visited the Ravens last month, just before they sent Brown and two draft picks to the Kansas City Chiefs in exchange for four picks, including No. 31 overall.

But general manager Eric DeCosta took wide receiver Rashod Bateman and edge rusher Odafe Oweh with his Day 1 picks, and none of his six other selections was an offensive tackle. Asked Saturday whether he foresaw the Ravens addressing their depth at the position after the draft, DeCosta said, “We don’t have to play games until September,” an acknowledgment that more moves were possible.

“We’re confident that we’ll have a right tackle,” DeCosta said. “We’ll have a strong offensive line. The best guys are going to play. We have great competition, and we’ll be ready to play when the time comes.”

The timing was right Tuesday. On Monday afternoon, the NFL’s window for compensatory picks closed, allowing teams to sign free agents without affecting the league’s formula for calculating compensatory selections. With Matthew Judon and Yannick Ngakoue having left Baltimore this offseason for big-money deals with the New England Patriots and Las Vegas Raiders, respectively, the Ravens are expected to receive an additional two fourth-round picks in 2022.

Villanueva’s signing, then, helps the Ravens’ roster in the short and long term. Like guard Kevin Zeitler, whom the Ravens signed in March after he was released by the New York Giants, Villanueva is not expected to cost the Ravens a compensatory pick. And according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed just three sacks on 724 pass-blocking snaps last season, a better rate than Brown in 2020. He also didn’t miss an offensive snap, playing a team-high 1,100.

But Villanueva’s role in Baltimore could be almost as different as, well, left and right. Even with All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanely recovering from a season-ending ankle injury, Villanueva is expected to compete for the vacant right tackle job with Tyre Phillips, who started at both right guard and right tackle as a rookie. Andre Smith, 34, who opted out of last season, is the team’s only other lineman with significant experience at tackle.

Villanueva, who protected Ben Roethlisberger’s blind side for six seasons in Pittsburgh, earning Pro Bowl honors in 2017 and 2018, has little experience elsewhere. According to Sports Info Solutions, he has played just nine snaps at right tackle since 2015 — three in 2019 and six in 2020, none as a pass blocker. Switching sides can be challenging for linemen, who have to reorient themselves and tweak their footwork in their new role.

“I’m right-hand dominant,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger, a former NFL offensive lineman, said in an interview in February. “I can make a left-handed layup, but not as good as I can a right-handed layup. All the things that you try to do — whether you’re trying to learn something like put a fork in your left hand and try to eat, you can see how hungry you’re going to be at the end of your meal.”

The demands of the position are also far different in Baltimore. Only the Jacksonville Jaguars (66.2%) passed at a higher rate than the Steelers (64.2%) last season; the Ravens, meanwhile, ran the ball at easily the NFL’s highest rate (55.9%). And while Roethlisberger led the NFL in shortest average time to throw (2.3 seconds after the snap), according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Jackson was fourth slowest among qualifying quarterbacks (2.98 seconds), partly owing to his scrambling ability.

The Ravens’ investment in their passing attack this offseason suggests coordinator Greg Roman envisions a more balanced offense in 2021, but DeCosta said in January that the team’s identity remains “a running team.” Villanueva graded out as a mediocre run blocker at left tackle last season on PFF; on ESPN, he ranked 18th among qualifying tackles in run-block win rate. Phillips was one of PFF’s lowest-rated linemen, with especially low marks for his run blocking.

“Obviously we have a hole at right tackle,” DeCosta said Tuesday on “Mad Dog Sports Radio,” on which he acknowledged Villanueva had visited but declined to confirm his signing. “We do have Tyre Phillips and Andre Smith, guys that are going to compete for that spot. But [Villanueva] is a guy that’s played a lot of offense. ... [I] think his skill set really does fit our club. Hopefully, at some point in the next 24 hours or whenever that’s going to be, we’ll have an announcement to make on that end.”

Villanueva has long had Harbaugh’s respect. In 2017, he said the coach was among his “archrivals in the AFC North” who’d thanked him after a game for his military service; Villanueva was a captain in the U.S. Army who served three tours of duty in Afghanistan and earned a Bronze Star for valor before starting his NFL career.

Involved in anthem controversy: In 2017, Villanueva became a flash point in the NFL’s national-anthem controversy when he was the lone Steelers player to appear for the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before a road game against the Chicago Bears. Pittsburgh players had not taken the field as a team for the anthem; coach Mike Tomlin said he didn’t want players to feel like they had to take a side in a public display. Villanueva later apologized for his appearance, saying that, “unintentionally, I left my teammates behind.”

His arrival in Baltimore gives the Ravens potentially one of the biggest offensive lines in the NFL. Harbaugh had called the unit a top offseason priority after the team’s season ended with a disappointing playoff loss to the Buffalo Bills, and the Ravens could start Week 1 with five players listed at at least 6-4, 315 pounds: Stanley (6-6, 315 pounds), rookie left guard Ben Cleveland (6-6, 343 pounds), center Bradley Bozeman (6-5, 325 pounds), Zeitler (6-4, 315 pounds) and Villanueva.

“I do believe that the offensive line is very important to us,” Harbaugh said in January. “It’s very important to any offense. If you don’t have a good offensive line, I don’t think you’re winning any games in this league, and your quarterback better be getting the ball out super-fast. ...

“So our offensive line is, to me, a primary piece to what we try to do, and we need to build the very best offensive line that we can. To me, it’s a major priority. It’s a major emphasis, [and] it will be a major focal point, always, in how we coach, teach, and how we build the personnel. [It’s] priority one, for sure.”