A look at the offensive tackles

For much of the 2003 season, the offensive tackle position the Steelers tried to make chicken parmesan out of chicken... well, you know. <br><br> It's just didn't work out. <br><br>

The Steelers knew they were going to have a difficult time replacing Wayne Gandy after he took the money and ran off to New Orleans. But they took a calculated risk in not giving a 32-year-old offensive tackle a long-term deal and instead gave the big money to Marvel Smith. Smith, the team surmised, was a better investment since he had rarely missed time with injuries and is several years Gandy's junior.

They were also pinning their hopes on the duo of Oliver Ross and Todd Fordham being able to hold down a starting job.

While not giving Gandy big money was the right thing to do - it would have left them in a tough position in two years when Gandy could no longer play - things didn't exactly work out as the Steelers had planned.

Smith, who moved to left tackle from the right side to replace Gandy, suffered a pinched nerve in his neck three games into the season and played in just three more games, while Ross and Fordham flopped at Smith's old right tackle spot.

The Steelers' mistake?

Not having a young player groomed to take over for Gandy's departure when they knew they weren't going to re-sign him to a big deal.

Mathias Nkwenti was supposed to be that guy, but never blossomed. And when he finally looked like he might be able to help out, he suffered a back injury and was put on injured reserve and then released during the offseason.

The Steelers hope that in third-round pick Max Starks and sixth-rounder Bo Lacy they have found two youngsters who will prove capable of playing offensive tackle in the NFL.

Starks especially will be given a shot at playing immediately as he'll be in the mix at the troublesome right tackle position fighting it out with the same cast of characters from last season. Starks was considered a possible first-round draft choice heading into his senior season, but an ankle injury limited him throughout the season and caused his stock to slip.

The coaching staff insists Ross played better at the end of last season and that's probably true since he was completely awful at the beginning of the year. He'll open training camp as the starter, but is on shaky ground and if the massive 6-7, 343-pound Starks shows anything he could push Ross to the bench.

Fordham beat out Ross for the starting job coming out of training camp last season, but was a turnstile. Like Ross, however, he can play guard or tackle and that ability makes him somewhat valuable.

Smith is completely healthy following his truncated 2003 season and has something to prove. The line looked a lot more solid with him in the starting lineup and though he's not a superstar left tackle, he's quite capable.

Lacy, a 6-4, 303-pounder, will be tried on the left side, where he lined up opposite massive Shawn Andrews - a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Eagles - at the University of Arkansas. Lacy isn't an elite prospect, but he has the mentality and moxie that Nkwenti didn't.

Veteran Barrett Brooks was brought in partway through the season after Nkwenti's injury, but didn't play a game. Brooks was once a capable NFL starter, but isn't any longer and won't likely make this team.

Josh Burr flopped in training camp last season, but was re-signed when the team was looking for practice bodies during the season. The Steelers sent Burr to NFL Europe, where he tore up his knee and earned a season on paid scholarship.

Morgan Pears was also signed last season as a practice body and doesn't stand much of a shot at making the team.

Dale Lolley
Courtesy of the Observer-Reporter

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