Steelers target Alejandro Villanueva for long-term deal
February 16, 2017 11:14 AM
Steelers Alejandro Villanueva celebrates with Steelers GM Kevin Colbert after beating the Ravens in the final seconds of a Dec. 25, 2016 game at Heinz Field.
By Ed Bouchette / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Steelers have been busy signing their own exclusive rights free agents to one-year contracts with one notable exception: Alejandro Villanueva.
They would prefer instead to sign Villanueva to a long-term deal as their starting left tackle rather than one year as they have done with the rest.
An exclusive rights free agent is a player whose contract has expired but has only two years of service in the NFL; as long as the club extends him a one-year offer at minimum wage, the player cannot sign with any other team.
So, the Steelers have signed a gaggle of their two-year players to one-year, $540,000 contracts that include Chris Boswell, DeMarcus Ayers, Cobi Hamilton, Xavier Grimble, Rosie Nix, Jordan Dangerfield, Fitz Toussaint and Anthony Chickillo.
Villanueva may be a different case. The Steelers no doubt protected themselves by issuing him the one-year, $540,000 offer but they are trying to lock him up to a multi-year contract. After 1 ½ seasons they are sold on him as their long-term starting left tackle.
Starting left tackles do not come cheaply. The 10 highest-paid left tackles in the league all average at least $10 million annually, two of them at least $13 million — Trent Williams of the Redskins and Terron Armstead of the Saints.
Villanueva won’t get that because he is not among the top 10 left tackles in the NFL and he is not free to sign elsewhere — but he is young and on the rise and improving dramatically.
Kelvin Beachum was the Steelers’ starting left tackle until he was hurt midway through the 2015 season, opening the door for Villanueva to start. Beachum signed a one-year deal with Jacksonville last year as a free agent for $5 million with a four-year option the Jaguars this week decided not to exercise, making him a free agent again.
If Villanueva, like other Steelers’ ERFAs, signed a one-year deal, he would become a restricted free agent after the 2017 season with protections for the team to keep him.
So the Steelers could easily retain Villanueva for the next two years at below-market rates. Nevertheless, they prefer to keep him longer and there is precedent for them doing so with such a young player.
Although he had one year left on his rookie contract, Antonio Brown signed a new six-year, $43 million contract in the summer of 2012 after just two seasons with the Steelers.
And like Villanueva, Willie Parker was an exclusive rights free agent in 2006 after going undrafted in 2004. He won the starting job in 2005 when he led the Steelers with 1,202 yards rushing, then set a Super Bowl record with a 75-yard touchdown run. Before his third season began, they signed Parker to a four-year, $13.6 million contract.
The Steelers would like to do the same thing with Villanueva, whose unlikely path from West Point Army Ranger and deployment to combat in Afghanistan should some day become a motion picture.
‘Highway to 7’
The New England Patriots recently filed to trademark the phrase “Blitz for Six” in their attempts to win a sixth Lombardi Trophy. Research shows the Steelers never did such a thing after winning their sixth — but someone else tried.
Forget that New England’s is a silly slogan — nothing close to the catchy old “One for the Thumb” coined after the Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl in January 1980 and alluding to a fifth ring. It neither fits the Patriots style of play (“Another One for the Tom?”) nor likely will sell many T-shirts.
The Patriots may have beaten others to the punch with “Blitz for Six” but surely some enterprising and creative citizen can produce something catchier and file a trademark.
That is what a Pittsburgh attorney did 10 days after the Steelers beat Arizona in Super Bowl 43. Gregg Zegarelli filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for the phrase “Highway to 7,” which was catching on after that Feb. 1, 2009, Super Bowl win that gave the Steelers more Lombardi Trophies than any NFL team.
Alas, according to online records in that office, that attempt to trademark “Highway to 7” was abandoned on Nov. 9, 2009, in the middle of a season in which the Steelers would not make the playoffs.
Good news for other entrepreneurs — it appears the phrase is still available to be trademarked, and with the Steelers one step from a Super Bowl appearance the past season, perhaps not all that much of a long shot to cash in.
A footnote: “One for the Thumb” trademark applications were filed 12 times through the years, and “One for the Thumb in ’91” trademark applications were filed three times. All are listed on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office as “dead,” except the most recent filing two weeks ago by — are you ready? — NFL Properties.
The NFL originally applied for the trademark on Feb. 1, 2006 — four days before the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl. It was not actually registered until April 20, 2010 — and expired in 2016 when the league apparently did not file to keep it alive. Now it has re-applied for it.
Apparently, the league’s marketing arm has ideas for throwback slogan sales.
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