Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
The Steelers may have to face the prospect that repeated free agent Max Starks will not be available to bail them out in 2013 the way he did in 2011-12.
The team had far less time to prepare for the season due to the lockout, which ended right before training camp was scheduled to begin. Perhaps it was a rash decision; releasing Starks for rumored reasons such as his state of conditioning, his weight and his lack of tenacity.
The only thing that rang true, though, was the move didn't work nearly as well as they planned. Starks was back a few days before their Week 5 game after having surrendered a slew of sacks, replacing the injured/overmatched Jonathan Scott. Starks has started every game since, not having missed a play during the regular season.
In fact, Starks and inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons, were the only two Steelers players to play every down in 2012. Timmons, six years younger and far more well-compensated, should be playing that much.
Should the team's blindside protector start and play all of 29 consecutive games without ever having another year left on his contract?
It's a gamble the Steelers have been taking, and, relatively speaking, it's paid off. Despite tearing an ACL in Pittsburgh's last playoff appearance in January of 2012, Starks returned to play this season, and while the level of his play may have dropped off a bit, the injury has to account for some of that.
It's not the injury as much as it's the investment that will force a new starter at left tackle for the first time since 2009 - when a neck injury forced Starks to the IR. The Steelers drafted Marcus Gilbert in the second round of the 2011 NFL Draft and Mike Adams in the second round of the 2012 Draft. With a new offensive line coach yet to be hired, but a huge investment in the team's future at tackle, the only likely scenario for Starks returning to the Steelers would be as a back-up.
And odds are good he'd get more of a chance to start somewhere else. And who knows? Maybe he'd even get more than a one-year contract.