Not many players have been casted away by their franchise, only to be brought back numerous times as a starter, but that's exactly what has transpired between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Max Starks. For a guy that's had his own quarterback continuously vouch for him, he hasn't had the greatest support from the Steelers front office.
When he was drafted, Bill Cowher and newly hired Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Wisenhunt were big fans of Starks. However, current Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, along with current and former offensive coordinators Todd Haley and Bruce Arians, viewed Starks as utterly replaceable.
There's been an internal battle in Pittsburgh about Starks ability on the field for years. Every part of Starks' career with the Steelers has been scrutinized, from his consistentcy, to his health, to him being the key piece on the offensive line for both the Steelers Super Bowl runs.
I had the opportunity to talk to 3 different inside sources for the Steelers, to see what exact type of player the Chargers would be getting if they signed Starks.
The first writer I reached out to was @SteelersDepot. He has 25k followers on Twitter and is a pretty good source for Steelers news. My question to him was "What can the Chargers honestly expect from a guy like Starks at this point in his career?"
"Not very mobile. Played ever offensive snap. Avg pass protector, avg run blocker. Best used in man blocking scheme. Smart guy" - @SteelersDepot
The good news is we know he'll be there for every game, unlike some of the players the Chargers have had at Left Tackle recently. Overall, though, it doesn't sound all that promising until you remember that an average left tackle would actually be an upgrade to what Mike Harris was at the position last year.
The next writer I contacted is Cian Fahey. He contributes on a few different websites and has a good grasp on Max Starks. I asked Cian "How good or bad was Starks' footwork and athleticism were when you watched him?"
"Athleticism is not great. He'll be a decent pass protector, but you won't be running behind him or getting him on 2nd level." - Cian Fahey
These reports on Starks are starting to confirm suspicions by Chargers fans that Starks is nothing but an average Tackle.
What I got from this is that Starks doesn't move very well and isn't a good run blocker. Fahey thinks that Starks would be an upgrade over Dunlap in pass protection and moving Dunlap to RT makes more sense, he would then move D.J. Fluker to guard to make more positions better. An interesting idea, but I feel doing that would hinder the running game on the edge greatly.
The last Steeler insider I had the chance to talk to was Neil Coolong, he's the main writer and editor over at Behind the Steel Curtain. Neil did a great job of breaking down what has gone on between Max Starks and the Steelers the last few years and what kind of player he'll be for the Chargers.
You might want to sit down and grab yourself a glass of water, because this might take a while.
"Starks started at right tackle on the Steelers' Super Bowl XL (2005) team. He was benched in 2007 in favor of Willie Colon. He still got a transition tag that following year, and would eventually take over the left tackle spot on the Steelers' 2008 Super Bowl team.
So he wasn't good enough to play right tackle, but he was good enough to earn a raise as a back-up, paying him $7 million to play left tackle on that same team, and that team won a Super Bowl that year. He also became the first player in NFL history to start at both right and left tackle on two Super Bowl championship teams.
He got a four-year extension in 2009, but was cut after injuries shortened his 2010 season (the team started Jonathan Scott at left tackle and signed Flozell Adams to play on the right side). He was released after the lockout in 2011 ended, very quickly into the abbreviated training camp. Rumor has it Steelers' front office types saw Starks at Ben Roethlisberger's wedding that summer and he appeared out of shape. They were comfortable going with Scott at left tackle again, and Colon at right tackle.
As usual, Colon suffered a season-ending injury early in the year, forcing rookie Marcus Gilbert to the starting right tackle spot. Through four games, teams beat on Scott so badly the team went out and signed Starks four days before their Week 5 game against the Titans. The Steelers had allowed 14 sacks through those first four games, and didn't allow any against the Titans while running for something like 170 yards.
(if you're keeping score, that means Starks got paid the balance of his contract when he was released, then his veteran minimum contract for the rest of the season. And people think restructuring contracts is why the Steelers are in cap trouble. It's because they can't help themselves from continuously giving Max Starks money!)
Starks has started at left tackle every game since then, but wasn't signed immediately in the offseason before last year. He tore his ACL in the Steelers' playoff loss at Denver after the 2011 season. The Steelers drafted Mike Adams in the second round, and hoped to start him on the left side, opposite Gilbert. Adams was a disaster in preseason, forcing the team to yet again sign Starks to a one-year deal.
Starks was the only Steelers offensive linemen to play 16 games last season. Even if he signs with San Diego, most Steelers fans feel he will play for the Steelers this year. Why? Because he hasn't gone away, despite the team's best efforts to get rid of him. Two tackles have been drafted in the second round, they've spent millions on Adams and Scott, and Starks continues to come back.
As for where Starks is now as a player, it's obvious he doesn't have the same quickness he once did. He was a capable pass protector, more or less, but he struggled a bit in run blocking. The Steelers tried to run zone this past season, but Starks simply did not have the quickness to move that much. To be fair to him, he was only eight and nine months removed from an ACL tear when he played through the early part of the schedule.
Starks is beloved in Pittsburgh because he's generally a really nice guy. Smart guy, has been a good football player throughout his career in Pittsburgh. You guys wouldn't be signing Jonathan Ogden or anything, but to be honest, for a 16-game season, I bet you'll get more from Starks than Baltimore will from Bryant McKinnie. Keep in mind, the Ravens benched McKinnie over the middle to later portion of the season. I'm convinced that was done to keep his fat ass rested for the playoffs. I'll buy you a case of beer if McKinnie starts 16 games for the Ravens this season. Starks is a better bet for consistency. Not outstanding, but not terrible either."
I appreciate Neil talking the time to talk with me about this. He raised a few points that would drive one to think maybe Starks would turn back into the player he once was in a familiar system. Also, 2 years removed from injury should help improve his lateral agility as well. Starks is a veteran and no more than a stop gap signing at this point. One or two good years is all San Diego would need from him.
Starks' numbers at Pro Football Focus don't exactly get you jumping up and down in excitement, but injuries play a large part in that. Before the injuries, Starks was great, but these days he's at least consistent. He's a solid veteran with high football IQ.
At this point is Starks the best option to keep Rivers upright? That remains to be seen. Max has said he wants to sign by the time OTAs kick off in a few weeks. The question is, will he be in a Charger uniform? And, if he is, will he be the favorite to win the job as the Chargers' starting left tackle?