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Steelers' Max protection

| Monday, March 17, 2008

The NFL salary cap is at an all-time high. Teams are spending money like they're playing Monopoly. Free-agent offensive tackles, especially those bearing Super Bowl rings, are supposedly in huge demand.

So why is Max Starks still without a new contract?

And why does it seem like the Steelers know something that the rest of us don't?

Starks appeared to be in line for a significant pay increase when the Steelers made him a transition free agent at a cost of $6.9 million in 2008.

If Starks finds a buyer, it forces the Steelers to ante up nearly $7 million if they want to keep him, or lose him without compensation.

The Steelers, who have legitimate offensive line concerns, gambled teams wouldn't be beating down Starks' door.

Turns out, the Steelers were right.

Remind me to ask Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert to select my lottery numbers the next time I see him.

Unless some team has a change of heart and lavishes major dollars on Starks, he'll have to play on the Steelers' terms, or not play at all next season.

So far, so good for the Steelers -- and still no offers that we know of for Starks.

Hard to figure how the Steelers knew how the free-agent market would play out, especially the market for offensive linemen in a league desperate for tackles -- particulary tackles who have started in a Super Bowl.

At 26, Starks is still relatively young.

He was the starting right tackle in 2005. According to the Steelers media guide, he threw a key block during Willie Parker's record 75-yard touchdown run in Super Bowl XL.

Starks was the starting right tackle for 14 games in 2006. Depending on who you ask, he missed the last two games either because of a knee injury, or because the Steelers wanted to take a look at rookie Willie Colon, a fourth-round draft pick.

Apparently, the new coach saw the same thing the old coach did, because Colon was the starting right tackle in 2007, with Starks backing him up. Starks moved over and displayed versatility at left tackle when he filled in for injured starter Marvel Smith late in the season.

Starks, though, hurt his knee in the final regular-season game at Baltimore. Little-used Trai Essex replaced Starks in the playoff game against Jacksonville.

Since the season ended, Starks has been rehabilitating his knee and waiting for the phone to ring with good news.

Any day now, Starks may land the big contract that could finally force the Steelers' hand. Yeah, and cigarettes don't cause cancer, either.

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