Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Something to Consider

The Steelers have so many needs, and so few draft picks, they should strongly consider swapping the number 23 pick in the first round for a high second-round pick and another, lower-round pick, if there are any takers for such a deal.

The Steelers have so many question marks at various positions, however, that they also must ask themselves, "What if the very best player at his position is available at 1.23?"

Which brings us to: Kenny Phillips, safety, University of Miami.

Joey Porter's Pit Bulls have been focused on other positions of need, and there are plenty of those: offensive line, defensive front seven, cornerback, and receiver (not necessarily in that order). One could make an argument for spending the team's first-round choice on a highly rated player at any of those positions.

One could also make a case for selecting Phillips, who is universally considered the best safety, by a wide margin, in this year's draft.

The drop-off from Phillips to other safeties is said to be considerable. Which is not to say you couldn't find a serviceable player later in the draft. But the premier player? It's Phillips.

The prospect of Phillips pairing with Troy Polamalu would be interesting, if not troubling, for opposing offensive coordinators, Carson Palmer and other NFL quarterbacks.

Phillips is accustomed to being hailed as the very best safety at whatever level he has played throughout his career.

But what about the Steelers? Do they really need a safety? Not sure, really. Given all their other pressing needs, if the Steelers were to select Phillips, it would reveal or point to a variety of factors: Lack of confidence in Anthony Smith. Continued health problems for Ryan Clark. A lack of depth at the position – although Tyrone Carter is a capable backup, he is a stopgap starter, not a long-term answer. Plus, one more question, and a legitimate one in light of last year: Can Troy Polamulu stay healthy all season?

So, if the team has qualms about entering the season with the prospect of Clark on injured reserve (or retiring), and a camp competition between a shaky, reckless Smith and a limited, aging Carter … well, then, maybe, just maybe they'll take a damn close look at the best safety in the draft, Kenny Phillips, who is supposedly being targeted by the Eagles (1.19), Redskins (1.21) and Giants (1.32).

So far, about the worst we've heard anybody say about Phillips is that he is the best of a weak draft class at safety. The weakness of the rest of the draft class is not his fault.

We've also heard that the coaching staff at Miami described him as a cross between two other former Miami safeties, Sean Taylor and Ed Reed.

Hyperbole aside (following the 2006 draft, Syracuse coach Greg Robinson described Anthony Smith as a cross between Dennis Smith and Carnell Lake), Phillips does have a track record of success to back up the effusive praise. He also has demonstrable playmaking abilities, is a sure tackler, has excellent size/speed ratio, strong coverage skills – pretty much everything you'd want in a safety.

Like Penn State LB Dan Connor, he'd be a safe choice: With both Connor and Phillips, at least you know what you’re getting. And there's a lot to be said for that.

So, as flaky as it sounds at first thought … maybe, just maybe, it would make sense for the Steelers to draft Kenny Phillips.

Maybe not, but pairing the best safety from college with the best safety in the NFL is something to consider. The Steelers could do worse.

Max'd Out

The more I think about The Max Starks effect on the Steelers' salary cap and 2008 draft plans, the more baffled, infuriated and exasperated I get.

Kevin Colbert is the voice and face of the Steelers' front office, so he is left to explain the decision to apply the transition tag to Starks. The contract guarantees Starks $6.9 million this season, making him the team's second-highest player behind Ben Roethlisberger.

Yesterday, I heard Colbert explain on a radio talk show that Starks was the Steelers' second-best lineman last year. Colbert didn't say who he thought was the team's best lineman (Alan Faneca?).

Colbert's statement confirms just how bad the Steelers' O-line was in 2007 (as if anybody needed further proof), considering the coaching staff thought so little of Starks at the beginning of the season that he was relegated to backup duty until pressed into service at left tackle when Marvel Smith went down with his bad back (and keep your fingers crossed on that front – it remains to be seen whether Smith returns to full health).

Colbert and the Steelers extended the transition offer to Starks with the intention of having him sign a long-term deal that would over-ride the transition contract.

Unless I am missing something here -- a distinct possibility -- where is the team's leverage? And why would Starks want to do that?

Consider for a second: Starks plays for one year at a guaranteed $6.9 million, which is an amount probably higher than any signing bonus he would receive in a long-term deal, and he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season -- one in which his contract virtually guarantees him the starting spot he needs to prove himself worthy of an even bigger long-term contract on the free agent market.

Yet the Steelers want him to restructure the transition contract? Would you?

Didn't think so.

Starks is an affable, genial and articulate fellow, and he has always struck us as being intelligent. Apparently, he is very lucky, too, because this contract was a gift.

Or, a gaffe, as in a colossal blunder by Colbert and the Steelers' cap-management team.

According to Ed Bouchette in today's Post-Gazette, even Starks couldn't believe his luck, which is why he delayed signing the offer.

"What took him so long to sign it? He wanted to make sure the transition-tag offer was guaranteed. He said he first thought the guarantee only applied when a team made someone its franchise player and not its transition player. NFL Players Association representatives assured Starks that the full amount of the tender was guaranteed, a change that occurred with the 2006 collective bargaining agreement."

The trouble with Starks' contract, or one of the problems with it, is that it hamstrings the Steelers cap flexibility and options for selecting an offensive lineman in this weekend's draft. As noted yesterday on this site, it pretty much tips Colbert's hand that he won't pick an offensive lineman in the first round, which would reiterate Colbert's oft-stated assertion that this is the deepest draft for offensive tackles in the past 25 years.

No center coming out of college this year is worthy of a first-round pick, and the only guard who is sure to be selected in the first round is Branden Albert, and he'll be gone by the time the Steelers' turn comes around at number 23. But there are lots of solid offensive linemen who should be available in the second, third and fourth rounds.

That leaves us to think Colbert made the curious offer to Starks after it became clear that Alan Faneca was going to leave via free agency, although it wouldn't have cost a whole lot more to apply the franchise tag to Faneca, despite the fact that he might not have liked it.

Starks, on the other hand, has to be positively ecstatic about his situation.

Well, anyway, what's done is done. Unless the Steelers miraculously persuade Starks to restructure the deal this week, they enter the draft stuck with Starks at right tackle (or maybe left tackle, if Smith's back problems continue).

The team's best move, probably, is either to pick the best player available at positions other than quarterback, tight end and, unbelievably, offensive line … or …

Or, trade down.

And, really, at this point, trading down probably makes the most sense.