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Steelers' offensive front may see familiar faces leave

| Monday, Dec. 31, 2012, 7:52 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune Review
Steelers offensive tackle Max Starks during practice on the South Side Sept. 5, 2012.

The Steelers' offensive line wasn't exactly an impenetrable front during a season in which it was ridiculed for inconsistency and sometimes decimated by injuries.

Now, it's back where it started at the end of last season. Yet it appears the offensive line will be in better shape when the team reconvenes for offseason training activities and minicamp.

Again, Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey will be the anchor of the offensive line in 2013. And the right side likely will consist of guard David DeCastro and tackle Marcus Gilbert, both of whom missed significant time this season with injuries.

Oddly, the only linemen to make all 16 starts this season could be shopping for new teams when the free agent market opens up. Guard Ramon Foster and tackle Max Starks aren't considered priorities for a team that will be about $12 million over the salary cap.

Still, Foster and Starks are hoping to be a part of an offensive line that faced inordinate adversity throughout the season, particularly via injuries — including Pouncey and Willie Colon, who moved from tackle to guard this season. Also, it incorporated three rookies — DeCastro, tackle Mike Adams and guard Kelvin Beachum — mostly out of necessity.

On Sunday, guard John Malecki was pressed into duty after spending much of the season on the practice squad. Foster had to man right tackle for the first time in his career after Beachum sustained a concussion when blindsided by Cleveland defensive tackle Phil Taylor.

Foster, of course, creates an interesting dilemma for general manager Kevin Colbert. Are the Steelers willing to risk losing perhaps their most durable offensive lineman, who made 31 starts the past two seasons? If so, it will signal a level of confidence in the oft-injured Colon, who signed a five-year deal in 2011 but missed every game except one in 2010 and 2011.

Colon's return, coupled with a healthy DeCastro, Gilbert and Adams, could make Foster expendable.

“I don't know how it's going to work out,” said Foster, who made $1.2 million this season. “I guess I'll really get to see the real business side of the NFL. It's really a toss-up whether I'll be here or somewhere else.

“I want to go somewhere where I'll be appreciated. I played a lot and started a lot. I'll see where it goes when free agency opens up whether I get a contract or not.

“Everybody wants a long-term contract, but considering they have a first-rounder in David (DeCastro) and Willie just got paid, it's a matter of if I'm that valuable. Willie is a special guy, so I can't see him not coming back next year.”

Foster, whose agent Joel Segal will aggressively seek the highest bidder, said he would rather the process play out quickly, especially if he returns.

“We don't want a whole lot of questions about this offensive line during the offseason about what we can and cannot do,” Foster said. “We needed to establish ourselves for next year.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at rpaulk@tribweb.com or 412-320-7923

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