February 7, 2009
By Donald Starver
The Super Bowl is over. The confetti has been swept from the streets of downtown Pittsburgh. The trophy is in the trophy case. And Steelers’ Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert is back to work.
Colbert faces the unfortunate problem of having to protect his roster from opportunistic raiders. This is an annual ritual in the NFL. Teams that didn’t make it to the Super Bowl think that the easiest way to get better is to steal players from a team that DID make it to the Super Bowl. Inevitably, the teams tend to pay way too much for those Super Bowl players. A case in point is former Steeler Antwaan Randle El. After the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, the Washington Redskins offered Randle El more money than Bernie Madoff stole from investors. Randle El was a decent player, but he wasn’t worth what the Redskins paid him. In the years since signing Randle El, the Redskins have learned that lesson too.
But despite the errors of the past, many NFL teams will line up this year to make the exact same mistake. Nobody ever said that NFL GM’s were the brightest bunch.
The most vulnerable part of the Steelers’ roster is the offensive line. Yeah, those guys who took tremendous heat from fans this season for letting Ben Roethlisberger get sacked 7,000 times (or maybe it just SEEMED like 7,000). Despite their very public struggles this season, the offensive line will be the target of NFL raiders.
Four Steelers offensive linemen (Marvel Smith, Max Starks, Chris Kemoeatu, and Trai Essex) are unrestricted free agents. Starting right tackle Willie Colon is a restricted free agent. That means that 3/5ths of the Steelers front five will potentially be leaving in the off-season. That is not a good thing for a team that lost Alan Faneca last year. History has shown that continuity is an important factor in the success of offensive lines, and continuity is the one thing that the Steelers’ offensive line has been lacking over the past 3 years.
The easiest decision (in my opinion) is Marvel Smith. Smith has missed 19 games over the past two seasons (including post-season games) due to back injuries. Smith has had back surgery twice. After the first surgery, Smith said that he felt better than he had ever felt. Despite feeling “great”, Smith’s back problems caused him to only be able to play in 5 games in 2008. The Steelers remained hopeful that Smith would make a full recovery and be able to play, so they kept him on the active roster until December when they finally put him on the injured reserve list.
Smith will be 31 years old when the 2009 NFL season starts. That’s not particularly old for an offensive lineman. However, for an offensive lineman with a history of back problems, he may as well be 200 years old.
Everyone thought that Kevin Colbert was crazy when he signed Max Starks to that huge contract last year. As it turned out, signing Starks ended up being a brilliant move, and Marvel Smith turned out to be their worst investment. Starks’ $6.8 million dollar salary brought a much greater return on investment (ROI) than the $6.6 million that the Steelers paid Smith to get back massages.
When healthy, Marvel Smith is a very good left tackle. Much better than Max Starks. Moreover, he’s a very nice guy. But can the Steelers afford to take another risk on his unpredictable back? I say no. B’bye Marvel.
Max Starks presents a dilemma for the Steelers. He has been a starting tackle in two Super Bowls. Yet, we all know that he’s not a top-tier tackle. So what do the Steelers do? Good left tackles rarely hit the free agent market. A left tackle who has started in 2 Super Bowls is probably going to be considered to be a desirable acquisition by many teams. In addition to having 2 Super Bowl rings, Starks is huge. He’s 6’8″ and 340 lbs. That’s pretty impressive (much more impressive than his actual on-field play).
It’s likely that some team will offer Starks lots of money. Probably more than the Steelers would like to pay him. But if they let Marvel Smith go, then they have to do something to keep their $100 million quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger, alive. Letting their top two left tackles go in the same year might not be something that the Steelers are willing to do. So unless Tony Hills is starting to look like an emerging superstar, the Steelers may end up paying Max Starks far more than he’s worth for the second year in a row.
Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon may as well be the same player. Their situations are almost exactly the same. Both players were thought of pretty highly when they were brought in. Yet, after spending 4 and 3 years, respectively, on the Steelers roster, neither has developed into an offensive lineman who instills much confidence in his coaching staff. Both players are an off-sides call or a holding penalty just waiting to happen (and they usually happen at the most inopportune times).
Ordinarily, I wouldn’t think there would be a big market out there for either of these players. However, the Super Bowl champ phenomenon will probably cause both players to have unexpected suitors. The surprising play of Darnell Stapleton and the return of Kendall Simmons will probably make Kemoeatu more expendable than Colon. I’d expect the Steelers to let Kemo walk, and to tender a reasonable offer to Colon. However, if the price tag gets too high, Colon will be gone as well.
Trai Essex is not likely to attract many offers. In his 4 years with the team, he has not been able to break into the starting lineup except for when someone has been injured. When Kendall Simmons went down with an ACL injury, undrafted practice squad player Darnell Stapleton earned his starting spot, while Essex continued to languish on the bench. That probably tells us all that we need to know about how much confidence the Steelers’ coaches have in Essex. Essex’s future with the Steelers is probably nonexistent. See ya, Trai.
The next easy decision for Kevin Colbert is Bryant McFadden. McFadden was arguably the Steelers’ best cornerback this year. He doesn’t have the physical talents of Ike Taylor, but his effectiveness can’t be denied. Unfortunately, McFadden took too long to prove his worth. Had he played this way last year, the Steelers would have extended his contract and we wouldn’t be talking about him now. But he didn’t, and we are.
Good cornerbacks are prime candidates for getting over-paid in free agency. Bryant McFadden is going to be the beneficiary of that phenomenon. Most Steelers fans would probably like to see McFadden remain on the roster. So would I. But the Rooneys have proven over the years that they don’t pay extravagant prices for free agents, no matter how well they’ve played.
Bryant McFadden has already tasted Super Bowl glory. Twice. So the allure of playing for a winner is not going to be his primary motivation. He realizes that his next contract is going to be the one that sets up his family financially for generations. He’s going to steal a line from “Jerry McGuire”, and adopt the mantra “SHOW ME THE MONEY!!!!”
Fortunately for the Steelers, Deshea Townsend continues to be a dependable player despite his age, and William Gay has been reliable whenever he’s been on the field. I haven’t yet forgiven Gay for wearing Arizona Cardinals’ colors to the Steelers parade (is it just me, or was that the most boneheaded move ever? Our colors are BLACK & GOLD, William. Black and gold!!!!!), but I’m glad that we have him as an insurance policy. Goodbye, B-Mac. We appreciate your contribution.
Nate Washington spent his first 3 seasons with the Steelers proving that there was no such thing as a pass that couldn’t be dropped. Nate redefined “butter fingers”. In fact, he appears to have taught his methods to Limas Sweed.
However, in his 4th year something changed. Nate Washington blossomed into the Steelers best long threat. He even managed to surpass Santonio Holmes in that regard (until the Super Bowl). Washington averaged 15.8 yards per catch (during the regular season) as opposed to only 14.9 for Holmes. Moreover, Washington had 4 catches of 40 yards or more, while Holmes only had two.
Washington has always been able to get separation from his defenders, but holding onto the ball was an issue. Now that he’s solved that problem, I think the Steelers will try to keep him. He’s only 25 years old, he has worked hard to improve.
Of course, if another team offers Washington a ridiculous amount of money, then the Steelers will wish him well. But Colbert will probably make a legitimate effort to keep Washington. In fact, he may offer him more money than fans expect.
Mitch Berger is a no-brainer. Dan Sepulveda will be back next season. See ya later, Mitch.
Tomorrow, in Part 2 of our series, we will take a look at the rest of the Steelers’ unrestriced free agents, and the the restricted free agents. In Part 3, we will look at the players with one year left on their contracts.
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