By BOB LABRIOLA
Of all of the mechanisms contained in the NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement pertaining to the movement of free agents, the transition tag might be the most misunderstood.
Since the Steelers placed the transition tag on offensive tackle Max Starks on Feb. 20, this is a good time to explain its significance.
The Steelers' move guarantees them nothing more than the opportunity to match whatever offer Starks is certain to receive once the free agent signing period opens.
That the transition tag guarantees the player a one-year salary equal to the average of the 10 highest-paid individuals at his position is a moot point in this instance, because that only kicks in if the player receives no other offers during the signing period that begins on Feb. 29 and doesn't end until July 22.
Starks, who will be entering his fifth NFL season, is not expected to have that problem, especially since he's a 26-year-old with 34 career starts at right tackle, including all 20 games in 2005 when the Steelers won Super Bowl XL, with another four starts at left tackle for an injured Marvel Smith in 2008. Starks played well enough in those games that the impact of Smith's injury became a non-issue.
Still, in accordance with the rules, the Steelers would have to pay Starks a salary of $6.895 million for the 2008 season in the event he does not present them with an offer sheet during a signing period that lasts almost five full months.
Neither Starks nor the Steelers would be particularly happy going the one-year, $6.895 million route, because the team would rather have a lower cap number than that for the 2008 season, and Starks would rather have the security of a long-term deal in place. Plus, it's believed that the long-term deals Starks figures to command would include a signing bonus of at least $6.895 million.
The most likely scenario in this case is Starks will receive an offer from another team that he finds acceptable, and then after the offers is presented to the Steelers they will have seven days to match it or lose Starks without any compensation.
Using the transition tag buys the Steelers some time to figure out where they see Starks fitting in on their roster and then to determine how much salary they believe should be allocated for a player in that role. If it turns out that their determination falls in line with what the open market decrees, then they can match the offer and keep Starks.
And since the transition tag doesn't inhibit other teams from pursuing Starks by requiring them to pay a price in compensation, there is little chance of the player becoming disgruntled as sometimes happens when a team uses the franchise tag.
Reports implying that the Steelers have taken a significant step to make sure Starks remains with the team through the 2008 season are inaccurate. The transition tag does not restrict player movement; its primary purpose is to allow the player's old team to buy the time it needs to assess the situation and make its own decision on whether to keep the player or let him go to another team.