Starks Reportedly May Be Lost for Season; A Major Blow for Steelers

With an aging Pittsburgh team starting to lose key players due to injuries, a promising 2010 season thus far is beginning to look a lot more like 2007 and 2009, and that should scare the dickens out of Steeler fans.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is reporting that Max Starks’ neck injury is much more serious than initially thought and the veteran starting left tackle may be lost for the season. This would mark the second starting offensive tackle Pittsburgh has lost this year, since Willie Colon tore his Achilles right before training camp.

At best Starks is an average NFL starting left tackle, a position where most teams place their best offensive lineman. The problem is that the fall-off behind him on the Pittsburgh roster is precipitous. The Steelers have only three options to replace Starks if he is indeed lost for the season and none engender much hope that this team will win a seventh Super Bowl title.

The first option and the most likely for this Sunday’s game against New England is to insert veteran, journeyman Jonathan Scott at left tackle. Scott has seen action at both tackle spots this fall. While his play has been inconsistent, it has been much better than anticipated after Scott yielded 8.5 sacks in 8 starts last year for Buffalo and signed with Pittsburgh for a non-guaranteed, veteran’s minimum contract after receiving no other free-agent offers.

Pittsburgh will likely have to give Scott a lot of help against certain opponents, including outright double-teams, chips by Heath Miller and Hines Ward that will further slown down a receiving corps that has struggled to get open on hot reads, and utilize far more plays that keep a running back on the left side beside quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on passing downs.

However, if the Scott experiment at left tackle proves disastrous, Pittsburgh may opt to flip Scott to right tackle and move Flozell Adams from the rightside to left tackle, a position where he was a 5-time Pro-Bowl selection for the Cowboys, including as recently as 2008.

Adams has clearly lost a step or two since his prime. His signing was the best the Steelers could do to replace Colon and his transition to right tackle has been far from flawless. However, considering the circumstances, he was a great signee by the Steelers and he may still be better at left tackle due to his familiarity with the position.

The final of three realistic options for Pittsburgh would be to move starting right guard Trai Essex to left tackle, a position where Essex saw action and some spot starting duty earlier in his career. Doug Legursky, who started four games at right guard while Essex was sidelined this year, would return to the starting lineup. However, this is the least likely option, since Essex was not very good at left tackle when he was younger, lighter and quicker, and Legursky was unimpressive as a starter at right guard this fall.

This injury is particularly frustrating because Pittsburgh’s lack of depth at offensive tackle is self-created due to a drafting philosophy of taking the best player available that has paid off very well for certain positions. However, the Steelers are the only team among 32 NFL franchises that did not draft an offensive tackle prospect in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft over the last decade (2001-10).

It is true that teams often reach for tackle prospects due to the importance of the position and thus too many of these picks end up busts. But when everybody is reaching for players at a specific position, you have to eventually reach as well or you end up with a situation like Pittsburgh currently finds itself at tackle.

Some thought the Steelers reached somewhat the last time it actually took an offensive tackle in the first two rounds, tabbing undersized Marvel Smith from Arizona State early in the second round of the 2000 NFL Draft. Smith turned out to be arguably the Steelers’ best offensive tackle over the last 20 years. You can expect Pittsburgh to finally reach for an offensive tackle in the first two rounds of a 2011 NFL Draft that appears weak at that spot compared to recent years.

Unfortunately, that reactive decision will not help the Steelers’ predicament right now. All we can hope for now is that Scott goes from being a mildly pleasant surprise as a reserve tackle to shocking scouts of 31 other franchises by emerging as a quality starting left tackle in a league that places more value on this position than any other.

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  • FW

    I know I’m in the great minority here when it comes to the 2010 draft, but I will reassert my position that we ignored the depth along the line. With Starks and Smith (and Colon) out, various OL dinged, and Keisel still iffy, I’d say that the luxury of drafting Gibson R4 was a waste. We overdrafted some positions and ignored ones we really needed, and still do.

    If the season starts to tank because we don’t have enough quality uglies, it’s on Colbert and the draft crew. Hate this.

    • Ted

      If that’s the minority opinion, FW, then you and I are in full agreement. Drafting LBs to be No. 6/7 and No. 9 on our roster in the 2nd and 4th rounds while ignoring OT was baffling. Yes, we would have had to reach for an OT in either spot. But it was a need worth addressing. Deep, LB depth could have been addressed later in what was the deepest 3-4 OLB draft ever.

  • Gretz

    I don’t like the idea of “reaching” in the draft. This hasn’t worked out particularly well for the Steelers over the years (Troy Edwards, Jamain Stephens and Scott Shields come to mind). Reaching is never a good idea, and, frankly, I’m not sure how much of an improvement a second or third-round rookie would be over Jonathan Scott right now. So far this season the only rookie offensive tackles that have started games are first round picks. And top ones. Jason Worilds has already provided more to the Steelers than any of the offensive tackles selected after him have provided to their teams.

    • FW

      Well, in fairness, how many other teams did lose both RT and LT for the year? We went into the draft knowing our OT depth was pretty miserable, and ignored it, this year, and for several years, so it’s an ongoing draft philosophy to cobble depth out of a miserable patchwork. If other teams were as thin and suffered those injuries, you can bet their later OT picks would be getting some action. In short: we’re needier than other teams.

      And you’re wrong about OT after Worilds not getting the call: Veldheer in Oakland has played LT, better than anyone thought he would as a R3 rookie.

      Really, what has Worilds done for us that would outweigh the value of a starting LT? Uh, ST play? yeah, that’s pretty nice and all. Not going to stop Ben from getting killed unless he can flip sides and play OL. Not going to help the run game.

      • Gretz

        Well, I don’t think the special teams play is something that should be brushed off seeing as how that unit played a big part in the Steelers missing the playoffs last season, and is arguably the most improved unit on the team this season, with Worilds being a big part of that.

        And it’s not like the Steelers were loaded with depth at outside linebacker, either. Who was the top back up coming into the draft? Worilds already been forced into action on the defense due to injury.

        I just don’t see how it’s beneficial to reach for the 12th best offensive tackle when there’s better players available at other positions.

        • Cols714

          Don’t you know that the Steelers should have an above average young player as a backup at every position? I mean, what team doesn’t have a good young backup LT? There are so many of those guys just lying around waiting to be drafted or picked up in free agency.

          I definitely would have had the the foresight to know that we were going to lose both starting tackles for the season and done nothing but draft tackles in the top three rounds for the last four years. Who needs WRs or RBs or DLs or LBs when in 2010 both OT are going to be injured?

          • finis

            Fine, baste the minority view with sarcasm. Always conducive to civil discourse.

            I’ve stated my opinion on this, and don’t feel the need to deride others for their opinions. But to each his own.

          • finis

            Fine, baste the minority view with sarcasm. Always conducive to civil discourse.

            I’ve stated my opinion on this, and don’t feel the need to deride others for their opinions. But to each his own.

          • Cols714

            Sorry. My opinion is that a team is not going to have young good backups at every position. I just don’t know how any team can prepare for losing both of its tackles. Especially the LT of which there aren’t alot of guys out there that can play the position well.

            I guess I’m tired of hearing how we shouldn’t have drafted a LB in round 4. They have what seems to be a pretty good draft class and we’ve now had two posts ripping the front office because they picked a LB in round 4. It just sounds like a lot of spoiled Steelers fan whining to me.

            If there

      • Ted

        Veldheer was actually who I wanted in the second round when we came up, although I thought it would take several years before he could play. I don’t know if he would have been a better option than Scott right now, but our future at OT would not look so suspect.

    • Ted

      Adam, in general, I agree with you. Teams should always get good value in the draft for where they are picking, and we usually do under Kevin Colbert, which is one of the reasons for his overall success. Problem is that offensive tackles, particularly those who may be able to play on the leftside, are so valued that they are over-drafted every year.

      For example, before the 2008 draft, tackle was considered among our top needs and it was a deep draft for them in the first round. J.J. and I debated endlessly on Sam Baker from USC, who was projected as a late first-rounder/ early second-rounder despite having a 2nd round grade by most. I liked the idea of taking him if we could trade down a few spots from 23, while JJ did not want to take him unless we went back into the second round.

      It became a moot issue when Atlanta surprised everyone by making Baker the 7th OT taken in the first round with the 21st pick. We landed a better player two picks later in Mendenhall who did not fill an immediate need. But the Falcons are now 6-2 and there is no way they would have that record if they went with best-player available in that draft, because Baker is now a good left tackle.

      In other words, you either reach for tackles nowdays or you pray that one of your late-round picks develops, even though most of those are still being drafted too early due to the run on quality OTs.

      On another note, I also wanted us to trade up from 32 in 09 to get Oher when he surprisingly fell to 23, and I was willing to give up 3rd- and 4th-round picks to do so. It is now debateable if that would have been wise, because we would have lost Hood and maybe Wallace. But we would not be in this predicament right now and Colon would have been our projected starter at RG.

  • Cols714

    Willie Colon didn’t injure his achilles until after the draft. No team can possibly have enough depth to account for losing both starting tackles.

    Even if they did draft a tackle instead of Gibson, do you really think a 4th round tackle would be able to do a better job than Adams or Scott?

    And what is with this “aging Steelers” nonsense? Last I checked a good portion of the offense was still in their 20s and the defense has young players coming along as well. Age had nothing to do with Colon or Starks getting injured. Freak shit like this happens.

    • FW

      As mentioned on the MNF football broadcast, our defense is the oldest in the NFL. Is that nonsense? Do you find it nonsensical to look at a DL with starters all well over 30 and perhaps consider that just drafting Ziggy Hood isn’t quite enough quality depth?

      OT depth has LONG been an issue. We’ve had two fair-to-middlin’ starters in Starks and Colon, and no one but NO ONE behind them. If that wasn’t painfully evident before, it damned well should be now. So again, it’s not a matter of just the 2010 draft, but rather a terminal myopia to the value of OL and DL talent.

      Our philosophy has been to load up the OL with mediocre and largely interchangeable fat and slows (Colon, Foster, C. Scott) and to hope and pray late round picks will surprise. DL we’ve relied on Smith and Keisel and Snacks to find the fountain of youth, and yes we added Hood (incomplete). Face it, we’ve invested a lot more, a LOT more, in WR than in OL or DL, and a LOT more in LB, and this “freak shit” is what we’ve allowed ourselves to be unprepared for.

      Sorry, every team has its draft flaws, and this is ours. Truth hurts. Not to say I called it, but I would have played it differently.

      • Cols714

        There are some older players on defense, no doubt and it is the oldest defense in the league. But you are talking about age in Smith, Hampton, Farrior and Keisel who are still playing at a high level. They gave Hampton a new deal and he is living up to it, Smith was playing great until he got injured and sure age had something to do with his injury, but that’s why they drafted Hood. They have players behind those guys. They have Timmons, Woodley, Gay, McFadden, Polamalu, Clark who are definitely not old. Then backups like Hood, Sylvester and Worilds are really young guys who will replace some of the older guys like Farrior, Harrison, and Smith.

        You can’t be young and have good depth at every position. The Steelers entered the season with Starks, Colon, Scott, and Hills as OL. That’s not terrible depth unless you lose both of your starting tackles. Which they did. But what the eph are you going to do? They drafted Urbick and Hills in recent years and neither one panned out.

        Could they have drafted differently? Of course. But then we’d be bitching about some other position where they weren’t quite young enough or without enough depth.

  • Cols714

    Willie Colon didn’t injure his achilles until after the draft. No team can possibly have enough depth to account for losing both starting tackles.

    Even if they did draft a tackle instead of Gibson, do you really think a 4th round tackle would be able to do a better job than Adams or Scott?

    And what is with this “aging Steelers” nonsense? Last I checked a good portion of the offense was still in their 20s and the defense has young players coming along as well. Age had nothing to do with Colon or Starks getting injured. Freak shit like this happens.

  • FW
  • Cols714

    Look, losing Starks and Colon for the season sucks. But I’m not going to ding the Steelers for not having a good backup LT. There just aren’t a lot of good LTs around the NFL, let alone having two of them on the same team.

    Hopefully Scott can do OK. If not, Essex has played there (and not too badly) in the past.

  • DC in ATL

    Didn’t we lose Marvel Smith to an injury in 2008? That season ended well if I remember correctly.

    I wasn’t crazy about drafting three LB’s last spring, but given that we may lose Woodley to free agency and that Harrison is in his early 30′s, I’ve come around to the idea of having young linebacking talent waiting in the wings on our defense.

    Also, isn’t it a little unfair to say the front office ignored the offensive line when our first pick was Pouncey? Could the line be upgraded more? Sure, but I’m giving our 2010 draft an A at this point if nothing else for taking a future All Pro and cornerstone for our line for the next decade with our first pick.

  • Steeler Stan

    What about Tony Hills? If he isn’t good enough to be in the discussion in this situation and at this point in his career then there’s no reason for him to be on the roster. I didn’t like what I saw from Hills earlier this year but maybe he’s gotten some needed experience. I also think we need to see what Chris Scott can provide before jumping to conclusions. I liked his tape from college. If Adams is the left tackle then Scott may be worth checking out at right tackle.

    • Ted

      Stan, after the preseason, I would have listed starting Hills as the No. 1 or No. 2 option. But after his performance against Tn, I no longer think that is a realistic option. Right now, Scott is better and far more experienced than Hills.

  • Steeler Stan

    What about Tony Hills? If he isn’t good enough to be in the discussion in this situation and at this point in his career then there’s no reason for him to be on the roster. I didn’t like what I saw from Hills earlier this year but maybe he’s gotten some needed experience. I also think we need to see what Chris Scott can provide before jumping to conclusions. I liked his tape from college. If Adams is the left tackle then Scott may be worth checking out at right tackle.

  • David

    Guys, guys, guys. No one can plan for future injuries. Where we drafted, all the sure-fire T’s were gone. Sure, we could have traded up. Or we could have drafted a 2nd rd T in the 1st. 20/20 hindsight.

    The best 1st Rd tackle I’ve seen us draft the past 10-12 yrs was Leon Searcy, and he was drafted pretty high. And the worst was Jamaine Stephens, and he was drafted pretty low in the 1st. So thinking ahead, what can we do? We’ll probably draft again in the bottom half of the 1st. I’ll guess that again, no sure-fire T’s will be projected for us at 20 or higher.

    Welcome to a perpetual winning team that usually drafts later, not sooner.

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  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    I will now confuse Jonathan and Chris Scott.

    Also, I can’t get too animated about our drafting strategy when the complaint is that we could have picked an OT in r4 but we picked one in r5. Going into the draft, Starks and Colon were coming off good seasons, were both young and neither had much (any?) history of injuries. We signed J Scott, had Hills and drafted C Scott. Seems like a sound plan blown up by too many unforeseeable injuries.

    • Ted

      Good points. However, the argument is that the Steelers should have gone OT in round 2 and then waited until rounds 3-4 OLB when almost everyone was still on the board and Jason Worilds may well have fallen roud 3.

  • EasyLikeSundayMorning

    Justin Hartwig is a free agent. If we have another injury and / or if Essex moves to T, maybe he could provide depth at G / C.

    • David

      According to Wex or a HSSer (I can’t remember) right before the first cuts, Hartwig was terrible as a guard, which is why he was rumored to be cut.

      I dunno. Hartwig at C and Pouncey at G? OK, thoughts done–never in a million yrs.

    • David

      According to Wex or a HSSer (I can’t remember) right before the first cuts, Hartwig was terrible as a guard, which is why he was rumored to be cut.

      I dunno. Hartwig at C and Pouncey at G? OK, thoughts done–never in a million yrs.

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