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Steelers sign franchise-tagged OT Starks to four-year contract

PITTSBURGH -- Offensive tackle Max Starks has signed a four-year contract that could keep him with the Pittsburgh Steelers through the 2012 season and frees up several million dollars in salary-cap room for the team.

Starks, the starting left tackle, was designated as the Steelers' franchise player on Feb. 20 -- less than three weeks after the team won the Super Bowl -- and he initially accepted a 2009 salary of $8.45 million.

Instead, the new contract is expected to pay Starks a signing bonus of slightly more than that amount but reduce his annual salary, creating additional salary-cap room for a team that was up against it for most of last season. The signing bonus, for cap purposes, is spread out over the length of the contract. The overall terms of the deal weren't disclosed.

By agreeing to the four-year contract, Starks no longer carries the franchise player tag.

Starks, 27, gains long-term stability with the new deal and avoids having to negotiate with the Steelers on a yearly basis. Last year, Starks was tagged as the Steelers' transition player and was paid $6.9 million, a large sum for a player who began the season as a backup but became a starter again after Marvel Smith missed most of the season with a back problem.

"We were very fortunate to have him," Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert said of Starks. "A transition on a backup probably didn't make a lot of sense, but we didn't feel like we would have been as good a team without him. We wanted to do a long-term deal (in 2008), but we couldn't get it done."

The 6-foot-8, 345-pound Starks, the starting right tackle when the Steelers won the Super Bowl during the 2005 season, was a third-round draft pick out of Florida in 2004. He made 30 consecutive starts at right tackle from 2005 to 2006 and has started 15 regular-season games at left tackle the past two seasons. He started the Steelers' final 11 regular-season games and their three playoff games last season.

Now that Smith and former starting guard Kendall Simmons are no longer with the team, Starks has the longest tenure of any of the Steelers' offensive linemen. Simmons was released in February after sustaining a season-ending Achilles' injury four games into the season. Smith signed with the San Francisco 49ers.

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