Black and Gold Fever

I don't often disagree with Kevin Colbert but I'm scratching my head on the decision to place the franchise tag on Max Starks.  That obligates the Steelers' to pay a tackle who could not even beat out Willie Colon for a starting job at the beginning of this season almost $8.5M next year.  And considering the transition tag they put on him last year, it means they will have spent about $15.5M to secure Starks' services over the course of two seasons.  While the conventional wisdom seems to be that this move makes sense, I don't see it that way for a few reasons.

The first reason is that Starks is not a great NFL tackle.  After watching him struggle the past couple seasons, I'm not even sure he qualifies as an average tackle.  If the franchise tag was meant as a way for teams to protect their franchise players, he isn't one of them.  Speed rushers run right around him like he is standing still and he gets almost no push when run blocking.  The only things he has going for him on his resume is starting on two Super Bowl winning teams.  That isn't exactly a ringing endorsement when the single Achilles heel on this year's team was an offensive line that he only cracked into due to injuries.   He also benefitted from having a quarterback with the rare gift to make the guy that just ran around him miss when closing in on the sack.  The Steelers aren't even sure he will start this year since they are still hoping to upgrade the position.  How often does a team franchise a player that they don't even think is a sure-fire starter, who they've identified as one of their weakest links?  I am skeptical that they couldn't find a cheaper and better option through free agency. 

The second reason I don't like the move is that it sends a bad message to the rest of the players.  The Steelers have a number of star players who are being underpaid compared to their performance.  What kind of message are you sending to them when you ridiculously overpay a marginal performer?  Last year, Starks earned about four times what NFL Defensive MVP James Harrison earned.  Don't think he didn't notice.  When one of your highest paid players can't even earn a starting spot on your weakest unit, it doesn't send a great message to the team.

The Steelers hope to sign Starks to a long-term contract.  I understand that.  But all of the leverage belongs to Starks.  He didn't sign a long-term contract last year when they slapped the transition tag on him.  What makes them think he will this year?  He is guaranteed to make the average salary of the top 5 tackles from 2008.  That gives him plenty of incentive to resist signing a long-term contract while holding out for top dollar.  Frankly, with so many top players, true franchise players, entering the last year of their contracts, I'm not sure it is even in the Steelers' best interest to sign Starks to a long-term contract.

This move also makes it very hard for the Steelers to do much else during free agency this year as they are handcuffed by the potential $8.5M cap hit.  One of the biggest casualties is likely to be conerback Bryant McFadden, a player that has far more talent and potential than Starks.  McFadden is a player that other teams covet, a young cornerback with cover skills and good instincts.  If any team was chomping at the bit for a shot at Starks, I'd be surprised.   

Those are four reasons I think this move was a mistake.  So, it is hard for me to understand why the Steelers just made Starks the $8.5M dollar man.  Here's to hoping that he blossoms into one of the NFL's best tackles this year and proves me wrong.      


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