It's not often that us fans get legitimately substantial news stories this time of year. We got one today when it was reported that offensive tackle Max Starks inked a four-year contract extension. As reported by ESPN, the contract is worth roughly $26.3 million over the next four years, with $10 million dollars of guaranteed money for the two-time Super Bowl winning tackle out of the University of Florida. Congratulations to Max Starks on the deal.
What does it mean though exactly for him and for the organization moving forward though? Let's try to break it down a bit after the jump.
I don't have all the answers, so perhaps it might be a better idea to just lay out some of what I feel are the more pertinent questions directly and indirectly affected by the signing.
Who's Next? At the outset of the 2009 offseason, Steelers fans were curious about what the organization might and might not do with some of its higher profile players. Well, Hines Ward inked an extension just days before the Draft; then Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison signed a new deal that will likely keep him in Pittsburgh for the remainder of his career; finally, the Steelers were able to work out a long term deal with Max Starks. By doing so, the organization will free up salary cap space in 2009. Instead of paying Starks over $8 million in 2009, the Steelers will be on the books for several million less. And what might the organization do with that money? Re-sign another impact player scheduled to be a free agent at the end of this coming season? Perhaps so. Potential candidates include tight end Heath Miller, kicker Jeff Reed, free safety Ryan Clark, defensive end Brett Keisel. That's but a few of the now 26 players set to be free agents at the end of this year.
Is The Time Now? You often hear the phrase 'building for the future' from organizations. Even teams that are committed to fielding a competitive product each year - like the Steelers - must think about the long-term financial implications of each and every decision. That often requires sacrificing in the short term for the sake of longer term stability and success. Well, as it stands now for Pittsburgh, at least from where I'm sitting, the time seems to be now to making the investments necessary to retain key players for the immediate future. By agreeing to a long-term deal with Starks, the Steelers have retained the services of arguably their best offensive lineman. Depending on how Willie Colon and Tony Hills develop, the Steelers may be in a bit of trouble two or three years down the road at the tackle position, but it also means that the organization has at least ensured that it can devote its resources to other important positions while knowing they have locked down a more than serviceable option at one of the game's most important positions - left tackle.
How does Starks' Deal Stack Up? Good question. We don't know yet the specifics of the deal, but let's just say for simplicity's sake that the deal is essentially worth $6.5 million per year over the course of the next four years. If you look at this database of offensive linemen salaries from 2008, you'll notice that Starks will be making about what he deserves in 2009 - somewhere in the top 15-25 range of salaries among all OL. When you consider that 2010 will not have a salary cap and that salaries will likely continue to escalate that year and in the following years, then one has to feel good about the price that Starks was retained at. Another way to look at it is that if the Steelers had not worked something out with Starks, he would have been extremely difficult to retain for 2010 after this season once he hit the market again. In fact, the Steelers probably would have had to slap a 'tag' on him for the third consecutive year - a decision that would have carried financial implications. Bottom line is the Steelers probablly got away with a steal of a deal here. Starks could have easily refused to accept that deal, taken his ~$8 million this year and then inked a deal either in Pittsburgh or elsewhere after this season that had as much, if not more, guaranteed money than what he accepted this season.
Will Starks Stay Hungry? There have been plenty of motivating forces in Max Starks' football life this past two seasons. First it was getting snubbed in favor of Willie Colon during the 2007 season, despite the fact that Starks was more experienced, more talented and perfectly healthy. Then he started the 2008 season on the bench after filling in nicely for Marvel Smith later in the 2007 season. This was after being slapped with the Transition Tag last year - a move that did of course pay him nicely, but also muddled his future financial security as he entered the prime of his career. Finally, he gets the Franchise Tag placed on him this offseason and proceeded to watch teammates James Harrison and Hines Ward get new deals - transactions that signaled that the organization still might not have Stakrs in their long term plans. Anyway, now that Starks has some security, will he work as hard and be as focused as he's been the past two years? Work ethic was not his strong suit early on in his career - a reality that probably has kept him from developing in to the type of player he has until just now rather than a few years ago. Will he remain hungry knowing he's got at least 8 digits in the bank and no real candidate to take his job anywhere on the roster? I sure hope so.
- What's Pittsburgh's New Cap Situation? Good question and that's where you come in. It might be a good time for us to get an updated tally of what the Steelers' salary cap situation is now that a number of the rookies have signed and now that Starks' 2009 cap hit has been lowered.
Those are just a few of my thoughts on the subject. I'd love to hear your feedback as well as any other pertinent questions you think are in play after hearing about Starks' new contract.