Ok, I've been trying to avoid the topic at all costs, but we can't talk camp battles without talking offensive line. We all know who the candidates are and for the most part we know where the battles will be. One of the most visual and talked about battles along the line will be at right tackle. Tackles are relatively easy to watch during games and most fans will be watching the play of whoever lines up at right tackle. Left tackle is normally the most glamorous position on the offensive line but during training camp 2008, it might be the one that gets the least amount of attention.
The Incumbent Starter: Normally when a fourth round pick becomes a full-time starter in just his second season, he's considered an outstanding success, but that wasn't the case with Willie Colon. Colon struggled through a sophomore season and was credited with allowing the most sacks. It would be uncommon for a tackle not to allow the most sacks but Colon's struggles didn't end with pass protection either. He was often times hit or miss when run blocking and would have two or three plays in which he dominated and then a handful of plays that he looked completely lost and/or ineffective (he was my 'adopted Steeler' late in the season). Inconsistency isn't uncommon for a young starter though so there's plenty of reason to think that he can still develop into a steady and reliable starter in this league. The real question is where? Everyone from scouts to fans to the media has questioned whether Colon would be suited to play guard given his size (6'3 315) and Tomlin has admitted that he will get some reps at guard sometime (although it hasn't happened yet). The future for Colon is uncertain at right tackle but I don't think there's a question about his ability to play somewhere on the offensive line.
The Challenger: Max Starks has 34 career starts and by now most of us know what
to expect from the 6'8, 337 pound lineman. He's an absolute mauler in the running game and according to most, was the best run blocker on the team last year (Faneca included). He's even decent in pass protection, when he's in shape and motivated. The problem with that is that's a big IF. He was average to slightly above average during his first season as a starter (2005) but by most accounts he played out of shape and uninspired football in 2006 and then lost his job to Colon in 2007. Starks looked like he was playing his best football of his career in four late season starts last year when Marvel Smith went down with an injury. Starks was, as we all know, slapped with the transition tag and (for the time being) will play the 2008 season with a $6.9 million dollar price tag. While some think that it would be nothing short of ludicrous to play a backup nearly $7 million a season, in the end Coach Tomlin will likely chose whoever performs the best over the guy with the higher cap hit.
In the end I wouldn't be surprised one bit if this battle raged all the way through the preseason and a true-starter wasn't named until Houston comes to town on September 7th. After all, Tomlin was still juggling the lineup in the final week of August last year. In my mind, if Starks shows up motivated and in shape (which he has millions of reasons to do so) he'll win the starting job and could look like the best lineman at times. I've been a fan of Colon and I don't want to see his development hindered but if they both play to their 'max potential,' Starks is the better player. If Starks steps forward as the clear cut winner early in camp, I'd look for Colon to get extended reps at both guard and maybe even center (he took reps there last year). Then things really get interesting.....but we'll look at the guard and center situation in a different thread. So who you got? Can Tomlin sit $7 million on the bench if Starks struggles? Is Colon good enough to beat him out?