Center position still up for grabs

| Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Steelers entered training camp with three starting jobs on the offensive line ostensibly up for grabs.

Less than a week into practice, offensive line coach Larry Zierlein stopped just short of saying the Steelers have settled on their starters everywhere but at one position.

That means the Steelers could have a most expensive backup this season.

Incumbent Sean Mahan is battling free-agent signee Justin Hartwig for the starting job at center. As for the rest of the offensive line, Zierlein said, "We're pretty well set. We'll see what happens with the center thing once we get in preseason (games), but I would say we're pretty well set."

If that is the case, it looks unlikely that Max Starks will get the opportunity to challenge Willie Colon for the starting job at right tackle -- and to justify what the Steelers are paying him this season.

Starks is guaranteed almost $6.9 million, but he may fill the role of swing tackle as he did in 2007.

The fifth-year veteran was the Steelers' top reserve at both tackle positions last season, and he filled in capably at left tackle when Marvel Smith was sidelined by back problems.

Rather than let Starks become an unrestricted free agent, the Steelers designated him a transition player during the offseason.

They were required to offer him the average of the top 10 salaries for offensive linemen in 2007, and when he signed the one-year tender offer, the money became guaranteed.

The salary Starks will make this season apparently has not been a factor in his competition with Colon.

Colon unseated Starks at right tackle last season -- Starks had been the Steelers' starting right tackle in 2005-06 -- and started every game there.

Zierlein said the third-year tackle excels at run blocking and has been improving his pass blocking.

"Willie's looking pretty good," Zierlein said. "He just keeps working on his protections, and he'll get better."

Colon said he has taken the approach during training camp that he is anything but entrenched at right tackle.

"I don't take anything for granted because I know I am in a competition battle," Colon said. "All I can do is just play ball."

Chris Kemoeatu, the projected starter at left guard, has been unable to play ball because of a tricep injury he suffered before the start of training camp.

Despite his absence and inexperience -- Kemoeatu has started two games in three NFL seasons -- the Steelers don't appear to be seriously looking at any other options at left guard where they must replace seven-time Pro Bowler Alan Faneca.

Trai Essex has been playing in place of Kemoeatu, who is on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, with the first-team offense. But he is a tackle and is not considered more than a stopgap at guard.

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