Steelers Fever – Without Starks, Steelers Offensive Line Would Suffer

Without Starks, Steelers Offensive Line Would Suffer – By Paul Eide

Steelers Fever Exclusive Editorial

With free agency set to begin this Friday, Steelers team officials have not yet determined what kind of one-year salary tender to give restricted free agent tackle Max Starks, the team’s only free agent (restricted) among their 22 starters.

Max StarksThe team is deciding whether to give Starks a tender of $1.3 million or $1.8 million, which determines in what round the Steelers would receive as compensation pick should he sign with another club. Besides retaining the right to match another offer, the $1.3 million would bring them a second-round draft pick if they let Starks sign with another team. A tender of $1.8 million would garner a first-rounder.

But with that in mind, hopefully the team is viewing this as a contingency plan rather than a solution. The full brunt of losing Starks in free agency wouldn’t be felt until the beginning of next season and finding a replacement with as much upside could be very difficult.

The 6-8, 336-pound lineman started every game in the Steelers’ run to the Super Bowl XL title in 2005 and started the first 14 games in ’06 before missing the final two weeks because of injury. Though his ’06 performance was viewed as a disappointment by many Steelers fans, he turned 25 years old barely a month ago and may still have his best days in front of him.

Starks is viewed by some NFL pundits as one of the best young right tackles in the league and is arguably the best tackle in free agency. Letting him go and trying to find a replacement could cause an even bigger problem than re-signing him because the drop-off in talent at the tackle position is pretty sharp and the Steelers don’t have much money to spend.

The next best tackle available in free agency would be the Arizona Cardinals Leonard Davis but signing him would be a step backwards. Not only is Starks a better player, but Davis would essentially have to learn how to play on the right side of the line, though he has lined up at every position except for center during his time in the desert.

A change of scenery may help Davis, but bringing him to Pittsburgh seems unlikely because he will command a lot of money that the Steelers don’t have. Plus, Davis is almost a mirror image of Starks, complete with questions about motivation and intimidating size (6-6, 365), but he is older (28) and less successful.

The early word is that if Starks remains with the club he will have to compete with second-year player Willie Colon for the starting job at right tackle. Colon started the final two games of last season as a rookie. But even if Colon wins the competition, keeping Starks is a good idea because of his potential to play more than one position on the O-line.

Starks has played right tackle for the Steelers, but he also played left tackle and right guard as a senior in college at Florida, showing versatility that could be utilized by the Steelers or another team in need. Age also factors in, as Starks is young enough that he could still learn another position on the offensive line if asked to by the organization.

Center Jeff Hartings retired in early February, so the loss of Starks certainly wouldn’t help matters. The team would enter next season missing 40% of the offensive line from the previous year. If you think Ben Roethlisberger was erratic in ’06, it could be even worse behind what would figure to be a patchwork line in ’07.

Not that starting inexperienced players on the line always spells disaster, but it’s a situation that NFL teams like to avoid. The left side of the line, with Marvel Smith at left tackle and Alan Faneca at left guard, is solid heading into next season and would undoubtedly be the strength of the unit. But the middle and right side would be a different story without Hartings and possibly Starks to lean on.

In addition to relying heavily on untested Willie Colon, fellow second-year player Chris Kemoeatu would also be expected to contribute at right guard or right tackle, especially if current right guard Kendall Simmons is moved to center, as some rumors have speculated. Kemoeatu has only played in three games over the last two seasons but did fill in nicely for Simmons when needed.

However, all of these adjustments would destroy any remaining continuity from ’06 that could easily be preserved by simply keeping Max Starks. It just doesn’t make sense to rebuild an offensive line that finished last season ranked fifth in the league in total yardage, but that could prove to be what the team ends up doing.

A lack of continuity on the offensive line is one thing that can undermine an entire offense regardless of the amount of talent at the skill positions, so the Steelers should proceed with caution.

Any way you slice it, the team needs more depth along the offensive line, not less. Whether it comes via the draft or free agency is incidental but losing Starks weakens not only the tackle position, but the offensive line as a unit.

In order to stave off rebuilding the offensive line for at least another year, Starks needs to be re-signed. While it’s true that he was burnt on the outside by many a speed rusher in ’06, how many 6-8, 330-plus-pound, 25-year-old offensive linemen with a Super Bowl ring are there in the league?

Size and experience are two of the few things that cannot be taught at the NFL level and Starks has both. There is no one on the market, or on the Steelers roster, that can effectively take his place. If the Steelers give up on him now, this decision could come back to haunt them for years to come.

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