As the reigning Super Bowl champions, the Pittsburgh Steelers figure to be raided in free agency. It's just a fact of life in today's NFL.
The Steelers have 13 players scheduled to become unrestricted free agents when the signing period opens Feb. 27. Over the next few weeks, we'll look at the Steelers position-by-position as they head into the period and what direction they may go.
Today: The offensive line
The decision to place the franchise tag on left tackle Max Starks makes complete sense for the Steelers given the state of their offensive line heading into free agency.
Five Steelers linemen – Starks, Marvel Smith, Trai Essex, Chris Kemoeatu and Willie Colon – are scheduled to become free agents. Colon is only heading into his restricted year, but that's a big chunk of one position and the Steelers felt they had to give themselves some options.
Looking around the free agent market, the Steelers realized that Starks was their best option at left tackle and bought themselves some time to negotiate a new deal while retaining his services.
Kemoeatu struggled in his first season as a starter at left guard, looking great one game and horrible the next. That might be the best he'll ever be and the team will only bring him back at the right price.
Center Justin Hartwig was solid in his first season with the team and is signed through next season. He should be even better in his second season with the team.
The team has a problem at right guard, when Kendall Simmons began the season, but suffered a torn Achilles tendon. Second-year center Darnell Stapleton replaced him and was serviceable, but is undersized often getting overpowered by big tackles. He's better served playing center if at all.
Simmons, meanwhile, is being counted on to come back from his injury, something that may be a lot to ask for a player who has already had to deal with diabetes and a torn ACL in his seven NFL seasons.
Colon will be back at right tackle barring another team offering him a deal the Steelers can't or won't match as an unrestricted free agent.
It's likely the team will re-sign Essex by offering him a chance to compete for a starting guard spot, while Tony Hills, a fourth-round draft pick, will be counted on to become more of a factor as the team's backup left tackle after being the only rookie on the roster last season to fail to be active for a game.
Guard Jeremy Parquet and offensive tackle Jason Capizzi provide depth, but will face stiff training camp battles to earn roster spots in 2009.
With Starks now locked up, it's likely the team will part ways with Smith, a starter in all nine of his seasons in Pittsburgh. Back problems have ended each of his last two seasons and could possibly end his career.
Placing the franchise tag on Starks also means the team won't be looking for an offensive tackle in free agency.
At guard, however, it may be another story.
New Orleans' Jahri Evans is a former Bloomsburg star and is the top guard on the market. He's a restricted free agent and teams will be watching closely to see what tender level the Saints offer him. Evans was a fourth-round pick of the Saints in 2006, but it's likely New Orleans will tender him at the highest level.
A more interesting, and expensive, option would be Baltimore guard/center Jason Brown.
Brown, a fourth-year player out of North Carolina, started at center for the Ravens in 2008 after playing left guard in 2006 and 2007.
Baltimore has all kind of cap problems trying to figure out what it's going to keep its linebacking group intact. Signing a good young starter away from a division rival is never a bad thing, particularly when he fills a need.
San Diego's Kynan Forney is an eight-year veteran and former starter with Atlanta who spent the 2008 season as a backup for the Chargers. The 30-year-old could give the Steelers a viable – and cheap – alternative if Simmons looks like he's not going to be ready to go.
Seattle's Floyd Womack would be another option. The 30-year-old Womack would be another stop-gap, but could probably be had at a decent price.
Dale Lolley appears courtesy of the Observer-Reporter.