Inside Slant: Pittsburgh Steelers
The Steelers signed Tampa Bay offensive lineman Sean Mahan, ostensibly to compete for the vacancy at center left by the retirement of Jeff Hartings.
Yet Mahan also could be the first insurance payment for 2008, when both of the team's starting guards could become unrestricted free agents. Mahan, 26, started at both guard spots and at center over the past three seasons in Tampa Bay. Cleveland, for one, had hoped to sign him and start him at right guard.
The Steelers will pay Mahan $17 million on a five-year deal that includes a $4 million signing bonus. In other words, they don't plan for him to back anyone up. He's a starter, it's just a matter of where. The coaches told him he will compete at center against longtime heir apparent Chukky Okobi and starting guard Kendall Simmons. They also kept rookie center Marvin Philip on the roster last season.
"They want me to come in and play center, so they've seen (video) back to 2004 when I played center," said Mahan, who played for the Bucs when new Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was on their staff. "Me playing left guard was because of injuries primarily. Tampa wanted me to play center and then we had injuries on the line so I moved out to left guard, right guard because I'm a versatile player."
Unless Mahan is a flop, he will start at either center or right guard. That would leave either Simmons or Okobi out of a starting job. Okobi, a six-year vet, is scheduled to earn a $2 million salary this season after taking a pay cut to stay with the team last year. He likely will turn down any request to take another pay cut this year.
But even if he does not win the competition at center, Okobi will be kept around. That's because Simmons and All-Pro Alan Faneca both have just one year left on their contracts and there's been no progress in negotiating extensions for either. Mahan could start one season at center and move to guard in 2008 with Okobi moving in at center.
This actually could be the last season for Faneca in Pittsburgh. He's been the rock of an excellent offensive line virtually since the day he was drafted in 1999. He's made the past six Pro Bowls. However, with the kind of money that's being paid to guards the past two years, Faneca may decide to test the market a year from now.
Simmons has one year to go on his rookie contract. The Steelers have a young guard behind him who could become a starter, Chris Kemoeatu, but they're still unsure about him.