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What To Expect from the Steelers Offensive Line After This Year

Nick SignorelliSenior Writer IJune 29, 2009

PITTSBURGH - JANUARY 11:  (L-R) Heath Miller #83, Willie Colon #74, Carey Davis, #38, Darnell Stapleton #72, Justin Hartwig #62 and Max Starks #78 of the Pittsburgh Steelers break the offensive huddle against the San Diego Chargers during their AFC Divisional Playoff Game on January 11, 2009 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Steelers won 35-24. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

It's hard to argue that the biggest area of weakness for the Steelers is the offensive line.  Most people say that it is the worst offensive line to ever win a Super Bowl.

There are a lot of different factors involved.  The key loss of Alan Faneca to the New York Jets last offseason and the injuries to Marvell Smith and Kendall Simmons could also be mentioned.

Then there is the fact that Max Starks was transition tagged, then franchise tagged, and then franchise tagged again, and he couldn't even take the starting right tackle job from Willie Colon.

However, if you looked at how Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert approached the offseason, you can see they believe in this young group.

LT Max Starks

After an early season injury to Marvell Smith, Starks came in and replaced him.  Starks improved over the season, leading the Steelers to franchise tag him for the second consecutive season.

If it was important enough for the Steelers to pay the kind of money they did to keep Starks around, it was important for salary cap reasons to get a long term deal signed.

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Starks recently signed a four-year deal worth $26 million. This freed up $3 million in cap space.

LG Chris Kemoeatu

There was no one on the line that had a more difficult job than Kemo.  Having to replace All-Pro regular Alan Faneca is a hard enough job, but when the players to the right and left of you both change, it makes it that much harder.

Kemoeatu did an above average job in his first year starting.  So much that the New York Jets tried to do with Kemo that they did with Faneca, steal him away.

Unlike Faneca, Kemo was willing to take less money to stay with the Steelers signing a five-year deal worth $20 million.

The left side of the offensive line has come to terms with the Steelers for the next four seasons.  These are the most important positions when you have a right-handed quarterback.  Especially when you are paying that QB over $100 million.

C Justin Hartwig

Hartwig came to the Steelers as a free agent pick up from the Carolina Panthers last offseason.  Hartwig replaces Sean Mahan, who was traded back to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after the signing.

Hartwig, as the center, is required to call the offensive protections at the line, which is the most important job on the line.

As he spent training camp with the team, the pieces around him fell.  Marvel Smith was lost for the year after a Week Three back injury, and Kendall Simmons was lost in Week Four to a knee injury.

The players that this new player had, now changed and they had to learn each other's strengths and weaknesses.

As the season went on, they got better, but they never had the time needed to mesh together.

RG Darnell Stapleton

In his second year, after being picked up as a rookie free agent, Stapleton had the task of replacing former first-round pick Kendall Simmons.

Though he struggled at times, when a player comes to the team undrafted, he should not be expected to take over as a starter in his second year.

Either because the Steelers don't have faith in him, or plan on moving him to center (he did play center in college), they drafted Kraig Urbik in the third round out of Wisconsin.

Urbik has size on his side. At 6'5", 323 lbs, he is more of a mauler than a finesse blocker.  He comes from a school that likes to run the football. 

I expect Urbik to push for serious playing time this year and to take over as starter by 2010.

RT Willie Colon

The Steelers selected Colon in the fourth round of the 2006 draft.  It was believed that he would have been a second or third round pick, but two college incidents where Colon was thrown out of contests for fighting made his stock drop.

When Pittsburgh selected him, they hoped he would turn out to eventually be a staple at the right tackle position.  That he has done.

Colon recently signed his one-year tender offer from the Steelers to remain with the team. 

After starting 14 games in 2007, Colon kept franchise player Max Starks from becoming the starter at right tackle, and will battle also recently re-signed Trai Essex for the starters job at camp.

Trai Essex

Essex has yet to establish himself as starting material.  He has an uphill climb. The only position he can compete for is right tackle. 

One of the more intriguing battles at camp will be between Colon and Essex.  I look for Colon to keep his job.

A.Q. Shipley

Falling to the seventh round, Pittsburgh selected A.Q. Shipley out of Penn State.  Shipley was an All-American, an All-Big 10 first teamer, and the Big Ten offensive lineman of the year.

Shipley reminds me of a young Mike Webster.  Webster came to the Steelers in the fifth round of the vaunted 1974 draft class.

Both were undersized, Shipley at 6'0", 298 lbs, and Webster at 6'1", 255 lbs. 

The biggest knock on Shipley is his size and reach.  Most scouts believed that if Shipley were three inches taller, he would have been the first center taken in the draft.

Shipley also grew up in Pittsburgh, rooting for the Steelers.  Scoring a 40 on the Wonderlic test, Shipley has the brains to man the position, provided he has the work ethic to develop the physical skills.

What does the future hold?

As I stated earlier, the left side of the line, the most important side, is under contract for at least the next four years.

Starks and Kemoeatu will need to get together and become close to the unit that was there when Marvell Smith and Alan Faneca were there.  With their size, strength, and experience winning the Super Bowl, these two young men should be ready to step up and lead this unit.

At center, A.Q. Shipley has two years to get ready to take over the role he has always dreamed of having.  The Steelers have a history of great centers, from Mike Webster to Dermonti Dawson to Jeff Hartings.

With the exception of the last couple of years, the center position for the Steelers has been one of the constants, having only three hold the position from 1974 until Hartings retired in 2006.

With his smarts and work ethic, along with the desire to play for his favorite team, Shipley will excel once he is ready to take over the starter's job.

At right guard, Darnell Stapleton is not going to be able to hold off rookie Kraig Urbik very long.  Urbik has the size, and more importantly the ability, to be a long-time starter in the NFL.

If Stapleton can hold him off this year, I don't think he will be able to much longer after that.  I look for Urbik to be a Faneca-type player within three years.

The biggest question mark is at right tackle.  Is Willie Colon or Trai Essex the answer?  I am not sure.  But if neither of them can step up, it is going to have to be addressed.

The Steelers line has the ability to grow together over the next couple of years and become one of the strongest units on the team.  But only if the players are willing to do the work that will make it happen.

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