I was asked last night by a reader of the site via email how much the Steelers would save should they cut left tackle Max Starks prior to the start of training camp in attempt to free up money to pay either free agent cornerback Ike Taylor or get a long term deal done with franchised linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
The short answer to the question is around $3.25 million dollars in 2011. Starks signed a four year, $26.3 million contract back in June of 2009 of which $10 million was reported to be guaranteed money. It is believed that the contract was structured to pay Starks $8 million in signing bonus money over 4 years along with another $2.3 million in roster bonuses. $2 million of that $2.3 million is believed to have been paid immediately after the contract was signed as the first roster bonus for 2009.
Starks is currently headed into his 3rd year of the 4 year deal with $4 million left to be paid of the $8 million signing bonus and he is scheduled to count around $7.25 million against the cap in 2011. Should the Steelers cut him, they still have to pay him the $4 million due instantly as there currently is not a cut before March 1st rule in place in which the Steelers would be able to stretch out the remaining signing bonus over two years to my knowledge. Put simply, they would have to count the $4 million against the 2011 cap, if indeed there is one, after releasing him and thus the savings of only around $3.25 million dollars in 2011. That is not a ton of money saved assuming that Starks is indeed recovered from his neck injury that cost him most of the 2010 season.
On top of that, I do not think cutting Starks, if healthy, is a wise idea because although he is not a premier left tackle in the league, Starks is certainly more than serviceable and above average based on his play prior to 2010. His poor play at the beginning of 2010 can likely be attributed to the high ankle sprain he suffered in week 1 against the Falcons that forced him to miss week 2 against the Titans. Upon his return, he still seemed hobbled by the injury, but never missed a snap until he suffered the neck injury against the Bengals in week 9.
Starks is still on the right side of 30 and he reported that is rehab is about complete. Sure the Steelers drafted Florida tackle Marcus Gilbert in the 2nd round of the NFL draft, who they likely hope is the heir apparent to Starks, but the lockout is certainly not helping his speed of development. In addition, offensive line coach Sean Kugler stated that Gilbert would be worked at all 4 spots on the line early on until he finds his home. Tackle Jonathan Scott is not currently under contract as he is an unrestricted free agent and although he progressed greatly after taking over for the injured Starks last year, he still had is moments where he looked pretty shaky. At best I think if he comes back in 2011 he once again would be better suited as a swing tackle. If right tackle Flozell Adams is allowed to return for his final year under contract, which I expect to happen, one should not expect him to play every snap at 36 years of age. In all of 2010 he missed more than 100 snaps due to being dinged up according to my records. In addition to Gilbert, Scott and Adams, the free agent status of tackle Willie Colon remains up in the air, and with the current appeal won by the NFL this past week, it looks more and more likely he could wind up being an unrestricted free agent which lessens his likelihood of returning in 2011 greatly. That leaves only Ramon Foster with playing experience and he seems to be better suited as a guard than he does a starting tackle.
In the end you can see that the Steelers really need Starks to return and I do not think releasing him is a wise choice if he is indeed healthy, as most expect him to be. The savings of only $3.25 million dollars is a drop in the bucket as his play, versatility and leadership is worth much more than that in my opinion. Ask me again after the 2011 season and I might have a different answer as Starks becomes a savings of around $5.25 million against the cap should his play fall off from his pre injury years and Gilbert has his rookie season under his belt.