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Steelers on brink of losing key player

| Thursday, Aug. 21, 2008

The clock may be ticking on Marvel Smith's career in Pittsburgh.

The veteran left tackle said "it's pretty much guaranteed" that he will be playing elsewhere next season if he and the Steelers do not agree on a contract extension before the start of the regular season Sept. 7.

Smith, who protects the blind side of Pro Bowl quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, is in the final year of his contract. The Steelers have a policy of not engaging in contract negotiations during the season.

The two sides have not had any substantial talks on a contract extension.

"Everybody who knows Marvel personally is well aware that it's not all about going to the highest bidder," said Ken Zuckerman, Smith's agent. "He doesn't like change and would definitely be open to working out a contract before the season. However, once the regular season starts with no extension in place, he will be forced to enter the free-agent market."

Smith would probably cash in big time if he hit the open market.

The Miami Dolphins gave a five-year, $57.75 million deal -- $30 million is guaranteed -- to left tackle Jake Long, and he hasn't played a down in the NFL.

Long's contract is the richest ever for an offensive lineman.

Smith could get a deal similar to the one Long -- the first overall pick of the 2008 draft -- signed with the Dolphins.

Established left tackles who are still in their primes such as Smith rarely hit the open market. They are almost always re-signed by their teams because of a paucity of quality left tackles in the NFL.

The Steelers historically have been reluctant to give long-term extensions to players that have completed two contract cycles such as Smith. And Smith, who turned 30 earlier this month, missed five games last season because of back problems.

Smith had successful surgery last December, and the operation relieved the 6-foot-5, 321-pounder of a nerve problem that had caused him to lose feeling in his lower right leg at times last season.

"I feel like I've got a new lease on my career," Smith said. "I feel like I've got plenty of good years (left)."

Smith already has given the Steelers plenty of good years.

He started at right tackle as a rookie in 2000 and later made a successful transition to left tackle. Smith made the Pro Bowl in 2005 and is highly regarded at a position that is especially critical to the Steelers given the investment they made in Roethlisberger during the offseason.

"I think he's one of the better tackles, as far as (left) tackles, that I've played against," Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison said of Smith, whom he goes against every day in practice.

If Smith leaves, the Steelers don't appear to have any viable options at left tackle.

Max Starks, who filled in for Smith last season, is also in the final year of his contract, and he conceded last week that it is questionable that he will be with the Steelers next season.

Trai Essex hasn't looked like anything more than a stopgap at left tackle in the three seasons he has played for the Steelers. Rookie Tony Hills, a fourth-round draft pick, is a major project.

The Steelers could keep Smith for one season beyond 2008 by using the franchise tag on the ninth-year veteran.

However, that seems unlikely for a couple of reasons:

• Teams generally use the franchise tag on a player only after they have tried to negotiate a long-term deal, and there have been no serious discussions between the Steelers and Zuckerman on an extension.

• The franchise tag guarantees a player the average of the top five salaries at his position from the previous year, but it is also a risk since it may keep a player on the team against his will.

Asked if he would feel slighted if the Steelers don't offer him an extension before the season opener against the Houston Texans, Smith said, "I can't tell you how I would feel right now because I'm not trying to dwell on it. All I can do is control getting ready for the season, playing the best I can and helping the team win. It's up to them whether or not they want to do anything."

Mixed results

Coveted left tackles rarely hit free agency since teams usually re-sign them before they can test the open market. Here are some notable left tackles that signed free-agent contracts elsewhere and how they fared.

• Wayne Gandy: The Saints signed the former Steeler -- 32 at the time -- to a six-year, $30 million contract in March 2003. Gandy played three seasons in New Orleans before the Saints traded him to the Falcons. Atlanta released Gandy after last season.

• John Tait: The former Chief signed a six-year, $33 million deal with the Bears in March 2004. Tait had played left and right tackle for the Chiefs. He played right tackle his first season in Chicago but has since been the Bears' starting left tackle.

• Jonas Jennings: The 49ers gave the former Bill a seven-year, $36 million deal in March 2005. Jennings has been a bit of a flop as injuries and ineffectiveness have plagued him in San Francisco. The 49ers have moved him to right tackle.

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