One of the many mysteries in the case of tackle Max Starks and the Steelers is why he did not sign his one-year contract tender as a transition player.
Starks unsuccessfully sought a meaningful contract offer from another team for the past seven weeks since free agency began. All the while, the Steelers had a one-year offer on the table to him for $6,895,000.
That's more than Starks made in his previous four seasons combined and would make him the second-highest paid player on the team in 2008.
What took him so long to sign it? He wanted to make sure the transition-tag offer was guaranteed. He said he first thought the guarantee only applied when a team made someone its franchise player and not its transition player. NFL Players Association representatives assured Starks that the full amount of the tender was guaranteed, a change that occurred with the 2006 collective bargaining agreement.
"The NFLPA lawyers contacted me and said, 'Max, you're wrong, it's guaranteed, it was amended and you have no problems with signing it.' So I said OK; I ended up signing it and it helps me and lets me know where I'm at. At least I have a home this year with the Steelers."
So the man who started on a Super Bowl team and lost his two-year hold on the right tackle job to second-year man Willie Colon, now finds himself trying to win it back. If he does not, he could be the most expensive backup in the NFL in 2008.
That $7 million is a big chunk for the Steelers to pay anyone in one season and, in fact, would be the most the club has paid in salary for one season.
Their goal is to change that by negotiating a long-term contract with Starks that would pay him a signing bonus and thus reduce the $7 million hit on their salary cap for 2008.
"It would give us salary cap relief and that has been our goal when we did put the transition tag on Max," said Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations.
Coach Mike Tomlin hailed the Starks signing as adding another "starter-capable" player to the offensive line, just as they did with free-agent center Justin Hartwig. Tomlin said adding those two takes some pressure off them in the draft this week.
"Absolutely," Tomlin said. "We meant what we said earlier when we said we were going to draft guys barring position, the best on the board. And making some of those moves and acquiring people to kind of bridge the gap makes that possible."
Colbert, who enjoys a good trade, said it's more likely the Steelers would trade down from their position at No. 23 in the first round than go up.
"Being that we only have six picks at this point, trading up in the first round is really not a likely scenario," Colbert said. "In other years, I would always say we could go up or we could go down, but realistically I don't think we can go up.
"Trading down is definitely an inviting option because there are a lot of players in rounds two, three and four that could help this team. The more picks we can get in any of those areas, the better off we are going to be."
The Steelers have about $2 million of salary cap room.
"We are fine from a cap standpoint," Colbert said. "We do not have to make any adjustments as we go forward with the draft. When it comes time to sign some players we might have to make some adjustments and there are various ways that we can do that."
Typical of the ways to do it is to restructure contracts, turning salaries into signing bonuses that are pro-rated for salary cap considerations.
Tomlin said Colon also will work at guard this spring. ... Two players who had late-season surgeries, Aaron Smith (biceps) and Troy Polamalu (knee), watched the first spring practice from the sideline. Defensive end Ryan McBean (foot) remains on crutches. ... Fullback Dan Kreider, an unrestricted free agent whose season ended when his ACL was torn Nov. 26, works out at the Steelers facility on occasion. "The last time I checked, he was progressing well and should be ready in time for training camp, wherever he ends up, be it here or somewhere else,'' Colbert said.