Steelers add to center competition

Free-agent Mahan signs 5-year, $17 million deal

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The Steelers certainly did not take the retirement of two-time Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings sitting down.

After signing free agent offensive lineman Sean Mahan, 26, to a five-year, $17 million contract yesterday, the team is awash in centers.

Mahan, who received a $4 million signing bonus as part of his deal, was told by the coaching staff that he will compete with six-year veteran Chukky Okobi and guard Kendall Simmons to replace Hartings. Marvin Philip, a sixth-round draft choice last year, also is on the roster.

A fifth-round draft pick from Notre Dame in 2003, Mahan (6 feet 3, 301 pounds) started eight games at center for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004 after a season-ending injury to John Wade. He started 16 games at right guard in 2005 and 12 games at left guard last season.

He is the first unrestricted free agent to sign with the Steelers this year.

The logjam at center could be resolved in any number of ways. Simmons could remain at right guard or, if Simmons wins the job at center, Mahan could play at right guard, a position where other teams wanted him, including the Cleveland Browns.

The future of Okobi also comes into question. He and Hartings both took pay cuts last year to remain on the team and Okobi long has been regarded as the heir apparent at the position.

Okobi is scheduled to make a $2 million salary this season and that would be an unusually high amount for a backup. Even backup quarterback Charlie Batch is set to earn $645,000 less than that.

The signing of Mahan is important to the Steelers in other ways as well. It gives them a young lineman with versatility and experience at three different positions as a starter. And it also gives them some protection as Simmons and All-Pro left guard Alan Faneca enter the final years of their contracts with no progress made toward extensions on either.

New Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was the Buccaneers' secondary coach for all but one of Mahan's seasons there.

"To be honest, I'm not sure when I opened [the Steelers'] eyes," Mahan said. "Talking with their O-line coach, I've obviously known Mike Tomlin for a number of years, him being in Tampa with me. The O-line coach previously had seen me on film back at Notre Dame and Tampa.

"They want me to come in and play center so they've seen [videotape] back to 2004 when I played center. Me playing left guard was because of injuries primarily. Tampa wanted me to play center and then we had injuries on the line so I moved out to left guard, right guard because I'm a versatile player."

One thing's for sure, Mahan will start somewhere after the Steelers paid him that much money.

"I plan on being a starter, so I'm not going to go someplace and not play," he said on Friday.

"We are happy to add Sean to our roster," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said in a statement released by the team. "Having started at both guard and center, he will provide competition through his experience and versatility."

Ed Bouchette can be reached at .


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