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mesaSteeler
02-22-2009, 09:14 AM
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Free agent offensive linemen scarce
http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/steelers/s_612901.html#
By John Harris
TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, February 22, 2009

Top offensive linemen rarely become NFL free agents. Those who manage to slip between the cracks are usually snapped up quickly.

The league-wide trend of teams keeping their talented players could have a negative impact on this year's free-agent class. As more and more teams retain their linemen, the free-agent talent pool dries.

Players will become unrestricted free agents Friday.

"I think teams are getting smarter. When they recognize a kid's pretty good by their second or third year, they want to keep them there for a long time. They know what they have in-house," said agent Joe Linta, who represents several potential free-agent linemen. "When you get somebody from another team, you don't always know what you're getting.

"I would say it's a below-average class from the standpoint that a lot of teams locked-up their good players before they got to free agency."

The importance of the left tackle position is such that one player determined the strength of this year's free-agent class.

The Carolina Panthers recently signed left tackle Jordan Gross to a six-year contract for nearly $60 million, making him the highest-paid veteran offensive lineman in league history.

Gross' signing weakened the offensive line class significantly.

"The depth at left tackle in the unrestricted free-agent market is always thin," said Kenny Zuckerman, who represents two of the top free-agent left tackles, Khalif Barnes and Marvel Smith of the Steelers. "If you've got one, you usually keep him until he retires."

Other free-agent tackles could benefit financially from Gross' absence. They include Barnes (Jacksonville), Smith (Steelers) and Vernon Carey (Miami).

Smith was limited to five games at left tackle because of a back injury. Zuckerman said he's fully recovered and should be effective for several more years.

Potential suitors want to know if Smith is healthy following two back surgeries.

"If you want a guy who has been to the Pro Bowl and is only 30, then Marvel's a great fit," Zuckerman said. "Especially for a winning team or a team on the verge of getting to the postseason. He can also play on the right side."

Max Starks was taken off the list of potential free agents when the Steelers designated him at the deadline as their franchise player Thursday. Starks will receive $8.451 million, the average of the top five salaries to be made by offensive linemen in 2009.

Director of football operations Kevin Colbert said when the Steelers tag one of their players, they hope to sign them to a long-term contract.

Starks moved from right tackle to replace Smith and was in the lineup for the Steelers' victory over Arizona in Super Bowl XLIII.

The question facing Starks during upcoming negotiations will be whether the Steelers consider him a left or right tackle. Left tackles are paid more because they protect the quarterback's blind side.

Starks' argument will be that he started 14 games at left tackle for the Super Bowl champions.

Typically, the Steelers spend big money on their top free agents and don't overpay role players.

This is the second consecutive year the Steelers have tagged Starks. Last year, Starks was the team's transition player.

Three Steelers offensive linemen are unrestricted free agents.

Chris Kemoeatu is viewed as the top free-agent guard. Kemoeatu, 26, has been open to a return to the Steelers, but he may want to test his value on the open market.

Trai Essex, who can play tackle and guard, hasn't been able to win a starting job. But his ability to play multiple positions increases his value as an experienced backup who knows the system. Because of his versatility, Essex may be more valuable to the Steelers than any other team.

Tackle Willie Colon, a two-year starter, is a restricted free agent.

The top unrestricted free agents at center include Jason Brown (Baltimore), Matt Birk (Minnesota) and Brad Meester (Jacksonville).

Fine lines

Here are some of the top offensive linemen who become unrestricted free agents on Feb. 27:

TACKLES

Player Team Height, Weight Age

Khalif Barnes Jacksonville 6-5, 320 26

Rarely reached potential in four years with Jags.

Marvel Smith Steelers 6-4, 320 30

Back problems could scare off suitors.

Vernon Carey Miami 6-4, 333 27

Switched to right tackle when team drafted Jake Long.

Tra Thomas Philadelphia 6-7, 350 34

Responsible for protecting Donovan McNabb's blind side.

Mark Tauscher Green Bay 6-2, 320 31

ACL tear in 2008 could scare teams.

GUARDS

Player Team Height, Weight Age

Chris Kemoeatu Steelers 6-3, 344 25

Steelers could need a replacement for Alan Faneca's replacement.

Cooper Carlisle Oakland 6-5, 298 31

Down year in '08 made him expendable in Raiders' eyes.

Pete Kendall Washington 6-4, 292 35

Age and back issues could cost him big contract.

Mike Goff San Diego 6-5, 311 32

Can also play center, making him a valuable swingman.

CENTERS

Player Team Height, Weight Age

Jason Brown Baltimore 6-2, 313 25

Ravens like him, but may have bigger free-agent issues.

Matt Birk Minnesota 6-4, 308 32

Will test market after Vikings didn't offer extension last year.

Brad Meester Jacksonville 6-3, 300 31

Missed 11 starts over past two seasons for Jags.

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.

St33lersguy
02-22-2009, 01:58 PM
There are some valuable OL that could help out with the OL situation. I heard Vernon Carey resigned with the phins