When Alejandro Villanueva signed a two-year deal with the Ravens after playing for the rival Pittsburgh Steelers, he was asked to do more than just move to a different city.
Villanueva was asked to make the transition from left tackle, a position he’s played for six NFL seasons, to right tackle to fill the void left by Orlando Brown Jr. after Brown’s trade to the Kansas City Chiefs. As the Ravens prepare for their first preseason game against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday night, Villanueva is still learning to adjust to the new role.
“It’s definitely difficult for the motor system to adjust, but you keep following the same principles that you followed to play left tackle,” said Villanueva, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. “You try to stick to those and just play based on principles and fundamentals and techniques. Those are the same for left and right.”
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman mentioned last week that Villanueva looked rusty during the first couple of days of practice, but has started making progress. There have been moments during camp in which Villanueva was outmatched by the speed and strength of rookie outside linebacker Odafe Oweh.
“He played on the left for so long, so there is a transitional time,” Roman said. “He’ll figure that out with reps. That’s the beauty of training camp.”
Villanueva signed with Baltimore in early May, a couple of weeks after Brown was traded to the Chiefs for a bundle of draft picks. Given Villanueva’s age, 34, Ravens coach John Harbaugh praised the team’s new right tackle for making the transition.
“It says a lot about the kind of player that he is,” Harbaugh said. “He gets better. He’s like we said, all football, all the time — it’s all he’s thinking about. I’m excited to see how he does this year.”
The start of Villanueva’s career featured a ton of moving between positions and locations. Villanueva was recruited to Army as a tight end but ended up playing a variety of positions, such as left tackle, defensive lineman and wide receiver.
Villanueva, who went undrafted in 2010, tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals as a tight end. When Villanueva was cut from the Bengals, he went into military service. Villanueva tried out as a tight end for the Chicago Bears two years later, but was cut and ended up going back into the military.
After serving a total of three tours in Afghanistan, Villanueva was signed by the Philadelphia Eagles to play defensive lineman in 2014. Villanueva began building relationships with players and the coaching staff until he was suddenly cut from the team.
“I became really good friends with everyone — Fletcher Cox, Vinny Curry,” Villanueva said. “I had an amazing [defensive line] room, and then one day, I was the first one to be cut, and I had to start all over again.”
Villanueva eventually found a home in Pittsburgh. He was signed to the Steelers practice squad and made the switch from defensive lineman to offensive tackle. Villanueva’s first season with the Steelers was in 2015, where he played in all 16 games and started in 10. Villanueva would go on to start in 96 games for Pittsburgh and be named a Pro Bowl selection in 2017 and 2018.
“I think the Steelers are a franchise based on continuity and doing things the same way,” said Villanueva. “Getting out of that comfort zone is reminding me of my roots in the NFL, and how I came to the league.”
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In Baltimore, Villanueva said training camp is tougher. Ravens camp reminds Villanueva of his college days, when he had to be physical at practice with a strong emphasis on beating the defense on every play and keeping his body in shape.
“It’s challenging, yet very rewarding,” Villanueva said. “It truly brings you back to your roots of the hardest situation that you’ve ever been in, and you have to overcome it, and you have to focus on fundamentals, techniques and whatnot.”
Oweh said competing against Villanueva has required him to build his repertoire and work on different moves, as the 6-foot-9 lineman constantly changes his sets. “He gives me angle sets, chop sets, and sits back, as well,” said Oweh, a first-round pick. “It’s been good.”
Villanueva shared equal admiration for Oweh, calling him “the fastest runner on the football field.”
“Iron sharpens iron,” Oweh said. “He lets me know what I could have done better with each rep, and I let him know certain things that really stop edge rushers.”
Villanueva said being part of a winning environment like Baltimore provides good vibes within the organization.
“At the end of the day, when you win, there’s a lot of good energy in the building,” Villanueva said. “Everybody’s in a good mood, and it makes your life a lot better.”