Eagles Had Right Idea, Wrong Position for Alejandro Villanueva

The former standout at Army, and eventual winner of the Bronze Star, the OL has become a success story in Pittsburgh
By John McMullen ,

PHILADELPHIA - Alejandro Villanueva arrived in Philadelphia back in the summer of 2014, a 6-foot-9 project during the Chip Kelly era who then-defensive coordinator Bill Davis was trying to turn into a five-technique defensive lineman.

Fast forward six years and Villanueva is the two-time Pro Bowl left tackle of the cross-state rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

Prior to signing with the Eagles, Villanueva spent his prior four years in the Army, a timeframe which included three different stints in Afghanistan totaling 20 months, before resigning his commission to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL.

"Football is my passion," Villanueva said at his first minicamp with the Eagles. "Even when I was in Afghanistan, I was always turning on (Armed Forces Network) and watching the games. It's a beautiful game.”

At first sight, the Eagles were enamored by Villanueva's impressive length, projecting the West Point grad at 3-4 defensive end despite the fact he led Army in receiving as a senior in 2009 with 34 catches, 522 yards, and five touchdowns.

"I left West Point very unsure about my abilities because I played three different positions (defensive end, wide receiver, and offensive tackle) and was never able to build upon what I learned at each position," said Villanueva.

In many ways, Villanueva arrived in the NFL as an athlete searching for a position.

"I played here in Philadelphia (in the Army-Navy Game) as a tackle and as a wide receiver. I never knew what my potential could be," Villanueva said. "The last time I hung up my cleats for Army, I said, 'Man, if I just had one more season at wide receiver, I could've gotten a thousand yards.' Or if I could've had another season at tackle, I would've gotten a lot better."

Before their feud, Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman scouted Villanueva at an NFL Super Regional scouting combine in Detroit, inviting him to town for a private workout.

"When we brought him in to work him out, we started to look at him as an offensive lineman," Kelly said. "We thought he was a big, tall (offensive) tackle type. But then when you kind of saw him running around, we thought maybe the best position for him would be defensive end in our system."

The Eagles were clearly envisioning a JJ Watt-like bat-down machine. In hindsight, Kelly's first thought was the correct one, but the real gravitation toward Villanueva had nothing to do with the actual position he ultimately succeeded at with the Steelers. It was the character of a Bronze Star recipient that foreshadowed the success.

"When you talk about the character component with him, I can't tell you how impressed you are with him as a person," said Kelly. "He's a guy that if you're going to take a shot on somebody, then you'd like to have him on your side."

To the Eagles who were around in 2014, the theme is the same.

“Am I surprised he ended up making it? Not at all,” said All-Pro center Jason Kelce. “His work ethic was unbelievable. He was incredibly smart. He had all the tools and everybody could see it.”

"Big boy, Army strong," DE Brandon Graham remembered.

Shortly after the Eagles waived Villaneuva, the Steelers pounced with a practice-squad offer with the intent on OT. That meant bulking up for Villaneuva and once that mission was accomplished he was on a 53-man NFL roster by 2015

The opportunity came when Kelvin Beachum suffered a season-ending knee injury and Villanueva has been stationed on Ben Roethlisberger's blind side ever since, starting the last 84 games for Pittsburgh, a number that includes six playoff games. He made the Pro Bowl after both the 2017 and 2018 seasons.

"To see him switch to the offensive line and then make the Pro Bowl and get paid, man I'm just telling you it just shows you his dedication to this game and it means something to him," Graham said.

The foundation of all the success was obvious to those who know Villanueva.

“I think that he’s a tremendous human being,” Kelce said. “He’s a guy that you can sit down and talk ball with for two hours or you can sit down and talk about life for two hours.

"He’s going to keep you thinking and talking and expanding your mind every second of it. He’s the type of guy I’ll have a beer with any day of the week and it’ll probably be the best one I’ve had in a while.”

John McMullen contributes Eagles coverage for SI.com's EagleMaven and is the NFL Insider for JAKIB Media. You can listen to John every Monday and Friday on SIRIUSXM and every Monday and Thursday with Eytan Shander on SportsMap Radio. He’s also the host of Extending the Play on AM1490 in South Jersey. You can reach him at jmcmullen44@gmail.com or on Twitter @JFMcMullen

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