Steelers look to lock up left tackle
The Steelers will likely make a push to retain either Max Starks or Marvel Smith prior to the start of the free-agent signing period at the end of the month.
Both are unrestricted free agents, as is Trai Essex. If the Steelers lose all three during free agency it will leave them without a left tackle who has any NFL game experience on their roster.
"Sometimes you can let a guy test the market when you have an alternative in the house," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said Monday. "But when your alternatives are free agents as well, that's a little unnerving. It makes you feel uneasy."
The Steelers are still formulating the plan they will take into free agency and the NFL draft. And Colbert said the team's offseason plans should be pretty much set before the NFL Scouting Combine, which starts a week from Wednesday.
The Steelers have yet to negotiate with any players on their roster, and none of their marquee players are up for free agency.
But in addition to Starks, Smith and Essex, starting left guard Chris Kemoeatu could hit the open market on Feb. 27 while starting right tackle Willie Colon will be a restricted free agent.
"If we could we wouldn't have that many coming into free agency at the same time," Colbert said of the offensive line, "but circumstances just dictated that's where it ended up this time."
Colbert said he would "like to be able to" sign at least one of the left tackles that are up for free agency.
Smith, 30, is the most experienced of the three but he has missed 19 games the last two seasons because of back problems.
Colbert said Smith has been rehabilitating and that "everything has checked out" healthwise.
Smith didn't play after the Steelers' Oct. 5 game in Jacksonville and the team put him on injured reserve in late December.
Ken Zuckerman, Smith's agent, said the ninth-year veteran is healthy again.
"If needed be, he could have played in the Super Bowl," Zuckerman said.
Essex has played sparingly in four NFL seasons and has just one career start at left tackle.
Starks would almost certainly draw the most interest of the three on the open market. The 6-8, 345-pounder has started at right and left tackle on Super Bowl-winning teams, and he only turned 27 last month.
The Steelers used the franchise tag on Starks last year — it allowed them to match any offer made to him by another team and receive compensation if he signed elsewhere — and they could do the same thing this year.
Starks made almost $6.9 million last season, and he would be guaranteed $8.45 million next season if the Steelers use the franchise tag on him, or $7.74 million if they designate him a transition player.
The Steelers figure to address the other side of the line as well in the offseason.
Their top five defensive lineman are all in their 30s and two of them — nose tackle Casey Hampton and defensive end Brett Keisel — are entering the final year of their contracts.
"You want to add some young talent, if you can, at any position," Colbert said, "but defensive line is probably one of the older positions on our team."
Notes: The Steelers have signed all of the players who finished the 2008 season on their practice squad to their roster. Included in that group is safety Ryan Mundy, a Woodland Hills High School graduate...The Steelers also signed former Canadian Football League running back Stefan Logan and are expected to give him a long look as a kick returner...The Steelers released defensive tackle Kyle Clement. The rookie had been on the reserve/injured list.
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