The Pittsburgh Steelers free agent focus became a little clearer today, as the team opted to name starting right tackle Max Starks as its franchise player. The decision means that Starks will receive a guaranteed 8.451 million dollars, and any team wishing to sign him would have to surrender two first round draft picks to Pittsburgh, and the Steelers would have the right to match any offer.
Assessment of Max Starks: “What a long strange trip its been...”
Starks joined the Steelers in 2004 as a third round draft pick out of Florida. Starks played sparingly in 2004, but earned a starting spot at right tackle on the Steelers Super Bowl XL squad. He also started all but the last two games of the 2006 season, but since then it’s been what the late Jerry Garcia would describe as “a long, strange trip.”
Injuries were the stated reason why the Starks did not start the last two games of 2006, although numerous press reports indicated that Starks had fallen out of favor with Steelers coaches, who by then were leaning towards Willie Colon.
One of the lines of continuity between Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher’s regime, was that Russ Grimm’s departure for Phoenix did not get Max Starks out of the dog house.
- Max Starks lost his starting job to Willie Colon in 2007.
He served as a back up offensive lineman and reserve, blocking third tight end for much of 2007. He made four starts in place of injured Marvel Smith at left tackle, and relived him on two other occasions.
Despite the fact that Starks had been coming off of the bench, he performed very well in Smith’s absence, well enough that the team decided it did not want to risk losing Starks in free agency. One year ago, the Steelers named him as their transition player. Starks could have signed with another team, and the Steelers would have had the right to match the offer, but he generated little interest.
Unable to agree to terms of a long term contract, Starks entered the 2008 season as a 7.9 million dollar back up, a move that left many fans and much of the press gawking… until disaster struck in the Jacksonville game.
Should the Steelers Have Franchised Max Starks?
Steel Curtain Rising was all over the map last year when the team decided to lay the transition tag on Max Starks. We were for it, then skeptical, then for it again.
Regardless, it was the move very well may have saved the season for the Steelers.
- Keeping Max Starks is the right thing to do.
He is probably never going to be a tackle in the image of Tunch Illkin or Leon Searcy, but he is a solid, versatile starter. Max Starks is the best of the Steelers unrestricted free agent offensive lineman. With Marvel Smith turning 31 and coming off of two consecutive seasons that ended with back surgery, and Willie Colon a restricted free agent, the Steelers have few options at tackle.
At the very least, Starks will give their line some stability and franchising him buys Pittsburgh time to draft and develop other offensive lineman.
But Is Max Starks Really Worth The Franchise Tag?
Ah, that is the more difficult question. As a franchise player, Starks has a guaranteed offer that is the average of the highest five paid offensive lineman in the league?
When you think of “franchise players,” in terms of offensive lineman, you think of guys like Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, Anthony Muñoz, perhaps a Toni Boselli.
- Is Max Starks in that class of players?
No, he is not.
- Is Max Starks one of the top five tackles in the league?
One should think not.
The Steelers can probably sign him for a deal that averages less than 8.451 million a year, but Starks now has more leveraging power. If he does sign, the Steelers cannot use the franchise tag until his contract expires, which means that the tag will not be available in 2010 when Hines Ward, Heath Miller, and James Harrison become free agents….
The Steelers are probably over paying for Max Starks, and over paying is deadly in the age of the salary cap, but given the alternative, they probably had little choice.
Over paying takes its toll, but the Steelers overpaid him last year didn’t win Super Bowl XLIII inspite of that fact, but perhaps because of that fact.
At the end of the day, the Steelers needed to keep Max Starks.