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Releasing Max Starks Was Always One of Steelers' Most Viable Options to Cut Salary for 2011

Wednesday was a relatively quiet day for the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency. That's not too surprising though. at least in terms of them agreeing to terms on free agents. Clearly the Steelers have quite a few decisions and transactions to make before August 4th when newly signed free agents are allowed to fully participate in training camp, and according to reports, it looks like Thursday will bring official news of at least one prominent starter being cut.

Here's what I believe is on tap for the Steelers for the remainder of free agency:

* I'm kicking myself for not having time to reiterate this idea before Jason LaCanfora reported on Twitter that  the Steelers were planning on cutting the veteran left tackle.. 

I did at least mention in this year's edition of the Pittsburgh Steelers Annual for Maple Street Press that it might 'behoove' the Steelers to release Starks.  And I remember going on record in an early April episode of Steel Curtain Radio suggesting that the Steelers would be prudent to consider cutting Starks and instead going with Jonathan Scott at left tackle -- for money-saving purposes of course. I posed the question to Jim Wexell and JJ Cooper.

(37:10 mark )

"What would you think about cutting Max Starks and going with Jonathan Scott at left tackle. There's just such a huge difference in the amount of money they're earning, and I really don't think there's that much of a difference in level of play."

Both had understandable reasons to be skeptical of any plan that went with Jonathan Scott at left tackle in 2011, Fair enough, but as Cooper determines in his awesome article for the upcoming MSP Steelers Annual, Roethlisberger deserves more of the blame than we all realize for the high number of sacks and pressures. Of course, there's the simple fact that even though it may have been ugly at times, we know that Pittsburgh can make it to the Super Bowl with Jonathan Scott at left tackle.  We'll see if Scott continues to develop or not, but I found it interesting that neither had much to say about why Starks should be the guy and worth the $7-plus million he was scheduled to make in both '11 and '12. 

(39:30 mark)

"I guess I just don't see Max Starks being head and shoulders above him, and if there's going to be a tackle taken in the first two or three rounds, presumably that person is looking to take over for Max Starks in two years anyway. So it just seems like there's a lot of money to be saved there. Maybe even spend it on a corner in free agency"

Starks is a better tackle than Scott at this point in their respective careers, don't get me wrong. Just not that much better, and certainly not worth the millions of dollars separating their paychecks.

* So, after saving over $5 million by releasing Starks, the Steelers may not need to take such tough stances with other players. They'll of course need to re-sign Scott. I believe the best option is to give him a four-year deal. Offering a two year deal will mean higher cap hits in '11 and '12 whereas a four-year deal would allow any signing bonus or guaranteed money to be prorated over more years.

Furthermore, what if Scott continues to develop under Sean Kugler and turns into an above average lineman in the next year or two? (Right now I'd say he's trending up, but not at a place where he can realistically expect to get paid more than $1.5 - $.2.0 million per year. That might change in two years time. Even if the Steelers have a better option at left tackle in 2013, it would be nice to have an experienced Scott on the depth chart to fill any number of reserve roles in a pinch.

* Aaron Smith might restructure his contract, but forget the idea of him being released under any circumstances. Ain't happening, period. The Chief kept Rocky Bleier on the payroll for years while he rehabilitated a leg injury suffered in Vietnam for five grueling years. The bond between the Steelers organization and Smith has long been sealed for life. I think it's more likely that they'll extend Smith for a year or perhaps even two, roll his salary into a signing bonus, and diffuse the cap hit for '11. The Steelers have enough young, inexpensive contributors on their roster where they don't need to do anything drastic with a guy like Smith. Maybe he agrees to take $2 million less in '11, but honestly I don't think the Steelers will have any problem making tough choices elsewhere because of how much value Smith has provided over the past decade, and continues to do so in the locker room even when injured. Business is business, and the Steelers aren't afraid of playing hard ball. But you don't become the gold standard of organizational excellence by being chinsy to your veteran 'lifers' who've made you proud (and loads of money) time and again over the years. That's not to say you overpay for past performance by offering new contracts, just that you don't back out of a very reasonable, mutually agreed upon deal to save one the margins in a single year. If Smith were due $12-$15 over two years, yeah, you have to think about restructuring. But I am not sure it's necessary in this situation, particularly after the Steelers made the right decision with Starks.

* Bring Willie Colon back for three years, but only pay him guard money. Let Colon finally compete at guard in 2011 while Flozell Adams finishes out his two-year deal as the team's right tackle. If Jonathan Scott gets injured or is stinking up the joint, maybe you move Adams over the LT on short notice and hope he hits lightning in a bottle like he did at RT in '10. You then slide Colon back to RT in Adams' place.

The debate about moving Colon to guard is nothing new, but all we really need to ask ourselves is this: is Willie Colon really going to be any sort of downgrade over the other candidates? The only guy you maybe feel more comfortable with is Doug Legursky, but he hasn't played much guard in the NFL, and has only a fraction of the overall experience Colon does. I think Colon would be just fine playing next to Maurkice Pouncey and Flozell Adams for a year.

* Not to sound unappreciative, but Arnaz Battle is definitely gone. Easy cap savings there.

* A harder but equally prudent decision is parting ways with Antwaan Randle El. I love Randle El and wish he could be on the team, but with just 53 roster spots and a hard cap, it's a decision you have to make. Randle El himself admitted that the numbers aren't in his favor because of the emergence of Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown.

* Honestly, I think I'd ask James Farrior to restructure over Aaron Smith. Farrior is owed more than $6 million I believe this year. He has proven to be well worth the investment since his extension, but I don't think Farrior would be averse to taking a pay cut to stay with the Steelers. If he's not interested, then you can always try to bring back Keyaron Fox to play alongside Lawrence Timmons, who's primed to have a dominating year in '11. There's also Larry Foote as an option. Not cheap, Foote still would cost less than half of what Farrior would, and I don't think that the decline in productivity would be all that pronounced.  Of course, Farrior is arguably the top dog on Dick LeBeau's defense, the absolutely heart and soul of the unit, as well as the savvy quarterback that directs traffic. Still, he got a fat payday in his 30s and has lasted longer than most anybody thought he would. The contract was back-loaded in a way, likely because the Steelers didn't think he'd still be going this strong at the outset of the '11 season. Well, he is, but I don't think Farrior is too proud to realize that he can still be appreciated without taking up quite so much cap space at 36 years of age.

* As for LaMarr Woodley, well, I need to look at the cap numbers, but I'm sticking to my story that the Steelers might not feel too inclined to commit mega-dollars to him at this point. Every contract it seems is a huge one in free agency this year, and if Woodley and his agent decide he needs to be paid like a top-five pass-rushing LB, than I wouldn't be surprised if the Steelers take a pass. The time is now to try to work out a long-term deal, before other teams can overbid for his services. But if he says no, then I see no reason why the Steelers wouldn't trust Jason Worilds to develop into a starting caliber OLB by 2012 at the latest. We'll see. Should get interesting quickly on Thursday afternoon. Go Steelers!