Starks hopes to make big impact

After signing record contract, tackle must fight for starting spot in lineup

Normally when a team bestows the kind of money the Steelers did on Max Starks, it comes with much fanfare, usually a news conference.

The Steelers made Starks their second-highest paid player without even a photo op, then told him to go win a job.

Starks has been doing that all spring, trying to win back his old job of starting right tackle. He lost it to Willie Colon last summer, which set off an unusual set of circumstances that culminated when Starks signed a one-year contract for nearly $7 million in April.

Six weeks later, he's taking snaps at right and left tackle but remains the No. 3 tackle on the team behind starters Colon and Marvel Smith. The real competition, if there is one, will occur in training camp at Saint Vincent College.

"He's establishing his role," coach Mike Tomlin said. "It's the same thing I've said, and I mean what I say -- he's a starter-capable offensive lineman. We're able to keep him in the fold. He's working like others are working and they'll establish their roles in Latrobe."

It's normally not difficult to determine who the favored players are in competitions -- look at their contracts. The Steelers did not give Sean Mahan a $4 million signing bonus as part of his five-year, $17 million contract last season to back up Chukky Okobi at center.

Starks' case is different. It would come as little surprise, even to him, if he filled the same role he did last season, when he earned $1.85 million on a one-year contract.

"It doesn't surprise me," Starks said. "It's not like, 'OK, we give you this money, guess what? We're giving you a golden ticket to Willie Wonka's factory, you know, a starting job.' It's going to be something that has to be earned."

Starks earned the job for two seasons -- one of them ending with a Super Bowl victory -- before a new coaching staff removed him in favor of Colon last season. Yet now he will make more than any offensive lineman, second on the team only to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, and the coaches' opinions have not seemed to change on Colon being their right tackle.

Yet, Steelers management, knowing it would lose Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca, did not want to let Starks walk away as an unrestricted free agent this year, especially after he showed late last season that he could capably fill in at left tackle. There were only two ways to keep him in Pittsburgh: sign him to a long-term deal or make him a transition player.

They did the latter, which required them to pay him precisely $6.89 million, the amount stipulated for an offensive tackle designated a transition player. It's the average of the 10 highest-paid tackles in the NFL.

Had another team signed him, the Steelers could have matched, but he received no offers. They have said they'd like to sign him to a long-term deal but there have been no discussions. It will be difficult to do that anyway because he's guaranteed $7 million over one season and can become a free agent again next year.

So, the player with the biggest one-year contract in the Steelers' history may not even start. He reports to work every day, just as he did a year ago for what were then his new bosses.

"That's all I can do," Starks said. "Every day, you're one snap away from being a starter, that's what you learn in the NFL. It could be like last year; I didn't start the whole season and ended up starting four games at left tackle. You never know what twists fate has for you. I just stay optimistic and wait for whatever opportunities are presented."

Starks played left tackle the previous two weeks in practice as Smith missed time to be with his wife while she gave birth. But he knows if he's going to start it would have to come at right tackle, barring injuries.

"We're not having a real opportunity to see where I fit in because we've had guys missing," Starks said. "Marvel was gone for two weeks. The time we could have started to see where I fit in has been delayed."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at . First Published June 9, 2008 4:00 AM


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