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What Does The Signing of Starks Mean For The Steelers?

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Hat tip to steelerark for breaking the news about Max Starks signing his offer sheet thus eliminating the debate over whether or not the Steelers would pull the transition tag after the draft.

So by now we've all heard that Max Starks has signed his one year contract and will, barring a surprise trade or new contract, be on the books for the 2008 season at $6.9 million. I'm sure no one heard this news and let out a huge sigh of relief (except of course Max), but what does it really mean for the Steelers? At first it seems crazy to pay a guy $6.9 million considering that he lost his job to a 4th round draft pick with only one year of experience. Especially when you consider that he didn't get a single contract offer or even an official visit from another team. While questions about the current situation as well as future of the offensive line remain, the signing of Starks is a step towards continuity. By now we all know the kind of player Max Starks is. When motivated and in shape, he's a mauling run blocker and decent in pass protection. Considering he's still just 26 years old and only on a one year contract, he should have every reason to report in the best shape of his life. If he performs well this year, he'll hit free agency at a premium age and will be poised for a mega-contract. Another sub-par year that starts with him losing his job in camp or playing poorly throughout the season could push him much closer to the `career-backup' label and much less desirable contract offers. For now though let's look at two different, probably equally probable, outcomes:

Scenario 1: Starks shows up to camp in shape and wins the starting RT job.
For at least the 2008 season, the offensive line would be somewhat set and on paper would look decent. With Starks, Simmons, Hartwig, Colon, and Smith the line should have the talent to protect Big Ben and open some holes in the running game. Starks and Simmons have worked together in the past and Hartwig should be an upgrade over Mahan. Hopefully have a mixture of familiarity and upgraded talent around Simmons will help him return to player that earned a big contract last season instead of the folding chair that he was in 2007. Colon's move to guard has been rumored since talk of the 2008 season began and even though he wouldn't be able to completely fill the hole left by Alan Faneca, there is hope that he can be an above average guard. Colon improved during his first season as a starter and a move inside could help him become a solid offensive lineman. Depth would be very solid as well with Mahan and Chris K backing up both guards, Essex backing up both tackles and Stapleton as the backup center. The only real question marks in this scenario are what to do with any draft picks. Unless the team decides to carry more offensive linemen than last season, some one would have to be cut or relegated to the practice squad. The only guys that would make it to the P-squad would be a late round pick or undrafted free agent. My initial guess would be that Mahan is the first guy on the chopping block should they need more roster flexibility, although Chris K is a guy to keep an eye on as well. He could be a `dark-horse cut candidate' if he doesn't impress coaches in training camp.

Starks is now an important cog for the Steelers for 2008.

Scenario 2: Starks doesn't impress in camp and ends up as a backup.
Get ready for another long season watching Ben run for his life and FWP dodging defensive linemen in the backfield. If Starks isn't the starting RT, then it's either Colon or a rookie. Colon would no doubt be better in his second season at tackle but it's still questionable if he can be an average OT. A rookie would be even greater question mark. If the Steelers draft Gosder, there's a decent chance he could step in and play from day one, but any other pick (barring one of the top 5) wouldn't be ready to start that early. In the long run, if the first round pick is Cherilus this could be the better option considering the RT spot would be locked up or at least four years, even though the line might not be as solid in 2008. Any way you look at this second scenario, question marks abound. Will a rookie play well enough to allow Colon to move inside? If not, will Colon ever be more than a liability at tackle? Can Chris K make the jump from backup to starting left guard? And the question we should all scream from the mountain tops, why in the world would a team use roughly 6% of their cap on a backup player?

It's pretty obvious which scenario would be better for the Steelers in 2008 and Max Starks. Starks can go a long way to proving he deserves a significant contract and equally ensuring the offensive line is greatly improved from last season. I'm sure in the minds of Coach Tomlin and the Steelers front office, they're betting nearly $7 million that Starks is ready to be a starting RT again and his addition to the OL can help boost not only the running game but also the time that Ben has to find his weapons. So now the question to you guys, which scenario is more likely? Does Starks being in the starting lineup make you more or less optimistic about the 2008 season?