Steelers sign new center
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For the second time in little more than a year, the Steelers signed a free agent they expect to become their starting center, one of three moves made yesterday to strengthen their offensive line.
Justin Hartwig, released last week by Carolina even though he was their starting center, came to a two-year contract agreement with the Steelers for $3,725,000 and a signing bonus of $975,000.
- Age: 29
- Position: Center
- College: Kansas
- Drafted: 6th round of the 2002 draft by the Tennessee Titans.
- Years pro: 6
Last year, the Steelers signed Sean Mahan from Tampa Bay for $17 million over five years with a $4 million signing bonus to become their starting center. However, they were not satisfied with Mahan's performance in 2007 and went looking for a replacement.
Mahan, like Hartwig, also can play guard. He and Hartwig will compete at center, but Mahan likely will become the swing man as a backup at guard and center. Chris Kemoeatu is the heir apparent to Alan Faneca as the starting left guard but it's possible Mahan also could compete for that job.
The Steelers yesterday announced that Kemoeatu and offensive tackle Trai Essex had signed one-year contract tenders as free agents.
The club did not announce the signing of Hartwig.
The Panthers released Hartwig, 29, in a shakeup of veterans in their offensive line. Carolina also released starting left guard Mike Wahle.
Two years ago, Hartwig signed a five-year, $17 million contract with Carolina as an unrestricted free agent from the Tennessee Titans.
"We had decided to go in another direction at center and Justin would have been able to come in and compete for the starting spot at right guard," Carolina general manager Marty Hurney said March 11 after releasing Hartwig.
"But we decided probably the right thing to do for Justin was make this move now and see if he can get with a team that would consider him as a starter at center."
Hartwig (6-4, 312) missed all but one game of the 2006 season with a groin injury. He missed the last game of last season in Carolina after his right MCL in his knee was sprained Dec. 24.
Hartwig played at the University of Kansas, where he started three seasons at right tackle and was a sixth-round draft choice of the Titans in 2002.
He became their starting center in '03 and started every game but one for them over the next three seasons before leaving for Carolina as an unrestricted free agent.
Hartwig will become part of a shakeup in the Steelers offensive line for the second year in a row, only in a different manner than existed for him with the Panthers.
It appears now that the offensive line could have two and perhaps three new starters next season.
Last season, the Steelers had two new starters in the line.
Faneca left as a free agent to sign with the New York Jets, and now they have a new center in Hartwig. If they keep their transition player, Max Starks, he will get an opportunity to compete for the job he lost to Willie Colon at right tackle last season.
Mahan, who played for the Buccaneers when Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was Tampa Bay's secondary coach, replaced retired Pro Bowl center Jeff Hartings last season. He started every game after a training-camp competition with holdover Chukky Okobi, who was released.
However, Mahan did not have the bulk at 6-3, 301 to handle some of the bigger nose tackles he faced, and he lost weight as the season wore down. At less than 300 pounds, he went up against some nose tackles who outweighed him by almost 100 pounds.
Strengthening their offensive line was a stated goal of Tomlin this year. While the Steelers were the No. 3 rushing team in the NFL, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was sacked 47 times, second most by a quarterback in team history.
"We have to play better," Tomlin said about his offensive line after the 2007 season. "We have to get better technicians. We have to communicate better. We have to coach better."
NOTES -- Kemoeatu will earn a salary of $1,417,000 for the 2008 season and Essex will receive $927,000. The signings leave the Steelers with two restricted free agents -- wide receiver Nate Washington and long-snapper Greg Warren. Those two have until one week before the start of the April 26 draft in order to field offers from other teams; the Steelers have the right to match any contract either might sign.
First Published March 19, 2008 12:00 am