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Steelers

Signing of Hartings solidifies offensive line

Jerry DiPaola
| Friday, March 9, 2001

Not long ago, the Steelers' offensive line was in disarray, with wasted draft picks, questions at both tackles and uncertainty at center. All of a sudden, the Steelers believe they have found the cure in the most unlikely of places - free agency.

The Rooney family continued its modest spending spree Thursday when it signed former Detroit Lions guard Jeff Hartings to a six-year, $24.25 million contract that includes a $5.75 million signing bonus. Hartings immediately becomes the replacement for former Pro Bowl center Dermontti Dawson, who was released last week because of chronic hamstring problems and a prohibitive contract.

In the first seven days of free agency, the Steelers have signed running back Jerome Bettis and Hartings with a total of $11.75 million in bonuses.

If money and high draft picks mean anything, signing Hartings gives the Steelers what appears to be - on paper and in the minds of many NFL observers - an outstanding offensive line.

Breaking it down:

  • Hartings, left tackle Wayne Gandy and left guard Alan Faneca are former first-round draft picks, who played at a high level last season.

  • Right tackle Marvel Smith is a second-round choice, who started nine games as a rookie.

  • Hartings, Gandy and right guard Rich Tylski have been added in free agency since 1999 at a total cost of $10.56 million in signing bonuses.

    Hartings bio
    Jeff Hartings

  • Hometown: St. Henry, Ohio
  • Height: 6-3
  • Weight: 295
  • College: Penn State (two-time All-American)
  • Drafted: First round, 1996, by the Detroit Lions
  • Honors: Pro Bowl alternate 1998 and 1999
  • Did you know?: He has five sisters and four brothers, one of whom attended Penn State on a football scholarship.
  • All that remains is the question of whether Hartings can make the switch to center. The Steelers believe he has everything necessary to do so, except experience.

    'When we look at the center position,' director of football operations Kevin Colbert said, 'obviously we want an athletic guy, and a very smart guy. Jeff fits both categories. It's a projection; there is no question about that. But it is a projection that we are obviously very comfortable in making with this signing.'

    The Lions had talked in the past about moving Hartings to center, but Colbert, who was their chief pro scout for 10 years, said it wasn't necessary because of the team's depth at the position.

    'We did not want to make a double move at that time because he was so good at guard,' Colbert said.

    Hartings, 6-foot-3, 295 pounds, said he brings 'quickness, strength and speed' to the offensive line.

    'I think they want to do some pulling here with their center like they have done in the past,' he said. 'Those are things that I have done at guard. This is not the only team that has talked to me about playing center.'

    The Lions wanted to keep Hartings and offered him a $6.5 million signing bonus on a six-year contract. But Detroit's original offer deferrerd $14 million to the final three years of the deal. The Steelers are scheduled to pay him about $12.5 million in the final three years; plus, they gave him a $750,000 base salary this year, compared to the Lions' offer of $477,000.

    After rejecting the Lions' offer, Hartings tried to continue negotiations with the team, but officials decided to look elsewhere for a guard.

    'He made the decision,' Lions president Matt Millen said. 'The decision was no, I want more. I was like, 'Are you out of your fricking mind• What are you smoking?' If that's what you want, then we're out of here.'

    Millen said the Lions' cap problems demanded that they defer much of the money.

    'He would have helped us get better,' Millen said, 'but at what price?'

    Hartings said the new power base in Detroit - Millen and coach Marty Mornhinweg - might have hastened his exit.

    'I think maybe under the old coaching staff that I would have (stayed in Detroit),' he said. 'I had been there for five years and they, maybe, valued me a little bit more. We tried to make it work, and we really thought that it was going to work out up until the end.'

    Offensive Line
    Here are the five starters on the Steelers' offensive line, where they were drafted, their cost against the salary cap this year and how much they were given in a signing bonus:
    Position Player Drafted Cap value Bonus
    Left tackle Wayne Gandy First round $4.162M $3.85M
    Left guard Alan Faneca First round $1.17M $1.65M
    Center Jeff Hartings First round $1.708M $5.75M
    Right guard Rich Tylski Undrafted $1.135M $960,000
    Right tackle Marvel Smith Second round $743,800 $1.2M
    Note: Only Faneca and Smith were drafted by the Steelers.
    Hartings will cost the Steelers slightly more than $1.7 million against the cap, about $2 million less than Dawson would have counted.

    'Pittsburgh stepped up to the plate with a very competitive offer,' Hartings' agent Ben Dogra said. 'It's a better structure, a better payout. Plus, I think he thinks he has a better chance to win (in Pittsburgh).'

    When the Steelers cut Dawson, they left open the option of bringing him back, but signing Hartings indicates that Dawson is no longer in their plans.

    'That would appear to be the case,' Dawson's agent Ralph Cindrich said.

    Cindrich said he has spoken to several other teams about Dawson, and he hopes to get into substantive talks at a later date.

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