Alejandro Villanueva has played left tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2015, long enough that it’s easy to forget that he got his start in the NFL with the Philadelphia Eagles. In May 2014 Villanueva signed a free-agent contract with the Eagles, who sought to try the former West Point graduate at defensive end, even though it had been five years since he played college football, and, Villanueva mostly played on offense for the Army Black Knights, where he served as a wide receiver, tight end and left tackle.
Three-and-a-half months later, Villanueva was one of Philadelphia’s first training camp cuts. But two days before he was waived, the Eagles hosted Pittsburgh for a preseason game at Lincoln Financial Field, and Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t help but notice the 6-foot-9 project, who made a solitary solo tackle that evening.
Pittsburgh signed Villanueva and under the tutelage of former Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak, he developed to the point that he started ten games at left tackle in 2015. Villanueva, a former Army Ranger who served three tours in Afghanistan after he left West Point, has held down the starting job ever since.
Jordan Mailata: Former Australian Rugby Star
One wonders if the Eagles have been more patient with the development of Jordan Mailata, 23, because of Villanueva’s success with the Steelers. The Eagles traded up to draft Mailata (6-foot-8, 346 pounds) in the seventh-round of the 2018 NFL Draft after he spent several weeks training in Florida as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program. That opportunity came his way when observers noticed how he punished teenaged opponents while playing rugby league for the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Like Villanueva, Mailata didn’t play at all during his first year in the NFL. Then he spent his second season on injured reserve, with Eagles offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland developing him all the while.
Mailata finally got a chance to play—18 snaps at right tackle—during Philadelphia’s Week 1 loss at Washington, the first football game of his life (if you don’t count preseason). Then, after Jason Peters was placed on injured reserve last Saturday, he got the opportunity to make his first NFL start against the 49ers, playing left tackle and helping his team to a 25-20 victory.
Jordan Mailata vs. Steelers’ OLB Bud Dupree
This week Mailata’s job won’t get any easier, as he and his Eagles teammates will be up against a pass-rush happy Steelers defense that has already recorded 15 sacks, including two-and-a-half by outside linebacker Bud Dupree, the former first-round draft choice he will most likely be matched up against.
But Mailata seems ready to make the most of his opportunity, and if he can hold onto the job it’s one that could become exceptionally lucrative. (Keep in mind that Villanueva ultimately signed a four-year $24 million contract in 2017, which comes to an end this season.)
“I have a lot of confidence in myself,” said Mailata, while meeting with the media on Thursday. “I always told myself if my number was called, I would be ready and that’s basically what happened.
“I have this saying,” he concluded. “‘Don’t dip your toe in the water, drown in it and learn how to swim.’ And I’m swimming.”