Steelers Recent Personnel Moves Set Stage for Shell Game at Offensive Line

Out of the many needs the Steelers took into 2008 off season, the team had one overriding imperative: Improve the offensive line. On this front the only two certainties were not good: Alan Faneca was leaving, and Sean Mahan was a bust at center. Everything else was up in the air.

The Steelers recently signed free agent center Justin Hartwig and agreed to one year-tenders with both guard Chris Kemoeatu and tackle Trai Essex. While these are good moves, they only ensure that offensive coaches have options when training camp convenes in Latrobe. “Unknown” remains the dominate variable in the Steeler’s offensive line equation.

Justin Hartwig is a new face and an experienced NFL starter, but Carolina didn’t feel he was worth his cap number. Even if Hartwig represents an improvement at center, unanswered questions remain at every other position on the line.

Tackle – Will Marvel Smith be back, and will the Steelers attempt to resign him before he becomes a free agent in 2009? Pittsburgh insists that Smith will return to full strength in 2008, but what of his long-term durability? When healthy, Smith is the team’s best offensive lineman. Management’s decision to seek or not seek a long-term deal with Smith will speak volumes.

Max Starks and Willie Colon present two more mysteries. Starks started from opening day to the Super Bowl in 2005, yet he found himself on the bench at the end of 2006 as coaches gave Colon a look. It’s important to note that the line actually gave up more sacks in 2006 than in 2007. Perhaps that’s why the coaches began phasing out Starks, yet Starks played very well in relief of Marvel Smith…

The decision to slap the transition tag on Starks perhaps betrays some of buyer’s remorse on the part of management. Using the transition tag in-and-of-itself is riddled with its own complexities. The team felt that Starks’s performance in spot duty had raised his free agent value, and by protecting him they gambled that no other team would pony up the minimum needed to sign Starks.

So far, nobody wants Starks at this price. But is this a good thing? Steel Curtain Rising agrees with transitioning Starks. But the fact that only the Steelers appear willing to reserve nearly 7 million dollars in salary cap space raises eyebrows. As the Tribune Review’s John Harris asked last week, does the team know something that everyone else doesn’t?

The situation at guard is no clearer. Hartwig’s signing appears to end talk that Kendall Stephenson would move to center, yet Hartwig also plays guard. Many feel that Willie Colon is better suited to guard, but many also felt that line play would improve with Colon replacing Starks at right tackle. It’s too early to label Colon a bust, but he clearly needs to show more than he has, regardless of where he plays.

Unable to secure a long-term deal, guard Chris Kemoeatu has signed a one-year tender. At 6-3, 344, Kemoeatu has the tools, but he has played little. Ideally, he’d take up Faneca’s, but the team is projecting that he’ll compete with Sean Mahan for the starting job. Kemoeatu is yet another unknown.

The draft only adds to the mystery. By signing Hartwig, the Steelers will not need to reach for a lineman in the first round. Nonetheless, they would be fool hardy not to draft at least one lineman on day one. How draft picks fit into the offensive line equation is beyond speculation.

For all of their moves in free agency, the Steelers offensive line strategy remains a picture of uncertainty. Will 2008 see Smith-Kemoeatu-Hartwig-Stephenson-Colon? Or perhaps Smith-Colon-Hartwig-Stephenson-Starks? Or maybe it will be Starks-Mahan-Hartwig-Stephenson-Colon? What about Smith-Hartwig-Stephenson-Colon-Starks — the possibilities are almost endless.

The Steelers recent personnel moves have given Mike Tomlin the ability to shuffle offensive line combinations like a Shell Master at a carnival. But unlike his carnival counterparts, Tomlin will not know what he has until he lifts up the shell.

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