With the Steelers need to shave more than $14 million off the team’s payroll to get under the 2013 salary cap, Pittsburgh faces some hard choices during this offseason.
Restructuring longer-term deals, especially those of Ben Roethlisberger, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley, will give the organization some breathing room. Several pay cuts will give them the cap space necessary to re-sign cornerback Keenan Lewis or receiver Mike Wallace, should the team decide to pursue either free-agent-to-be this offseason.
To get more room to maneuver this offseason, the team eventually is going to have to consider cutting some players whose remaining contracts are too short to restructure, particularly players who are at an age where extensions would be poor investments. Some cap casualties may be fan favorites who have been a major part of the Steelers’ success dating back to their Super Bowls, such as James Harrison, Troy Polamalu, Ryan Clark, Brett Keisel, Ike Taylor and Shaun Suisham.
Pittsburgh is unlikely to release all (or even most) of those players. But, if the organization wants to get under the cap this coming season, it cannot afford to keep all of them. But, if recent rumors are true, Harrison might have just played his last season with the team.
Releasing Harrison, a former Defensive Player of the Year, would save the Steelers about $5.1 million in 2013, making him a prime target for the chopping block. As with any player, however, the decision about whether to keep Harrison will ultimately hinge on the results of a detailed cost-benefit analysis. The Steelers will need to evaluate whether what it gets in return for paying the 10-year veteran about $19 million for the next two years outweighs the benefits it gets from the added cap space plus the on-the-field contributions of Harrison’s eventual replacement at outside linebacker.
As part of those calculations, the Steelers will have to determine whether said new starter could approximate what Harrison has done for the team over the past few years at a much lower cost. When all of this is taken into consideration, keeping Harrison does not look like a smart move.
The first part of the equation is Harrison’s future cost relative to his expected output. Given his apparent unwillingness to take a pay cut to stay in Pittsburgh, Harrison will be owed $10 million if he remains with the Steelers in 2013. That means he may be overpriced next year if his performance on the field slips. Anything less than the pre-2012 superstar-caliber play from the linebacker won’t be enough to justify paying him that high a salary.
Unfortunately, indications are that his play is starting to fall off. Harrison is coming off of what was, for him, a down year. After four straight years in which Pro Football Focus ranked him in the top six among 3-4 outside linebackers, Harrison slipped to 10th place among the 28 players who were on the field at that position for at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive snaps in 2012. His overall score put him barely above that of an average outside linebacker.
Harrison also struggled in an area that has traditionally been one of his strengths: putting pressure on opposing quarterbacks. He notched his fewest sacks per game since becoming a starter in 2007 and finished 19th out of 34 3-4 outside linebackers in pressure generated on opposing quarterbacks. After averaging nearly 11 sacks and over five fumbles forced per season from 2007 to 2011, Harrison's 2012 stats in those categories were six and two, respectively.
Harrison did battle injuries early in the season and a rebound in 2013 is not impossible. But he will be 35 next year, raising questions about whether he is entering the irreversible late-career decline that inevitably affects all players with long NFL tenures.
The second part of the Steelers’ analysis is whether Jason Worilds, the Steeler most likely to replace Harrison, is a good enough option going forward to make up for the loss of such a key player. The third-year pro obviously costs considerably less than Harrison ($985,000 in 2013), but he is just as clearly not the same imposing presence as Harrison and has yet to develop into dominant pass rusher.
In his three years in the NFL, the former Virginia Tech star has seen only limited action, playing in four percent of the team’s defensive snaps in 2010, 46.5 percent in 2011 and 40.6 percent in 2012. He started seven games in 2011 and three last year.
Not surprisingly, the young linebacker has not had the same overall impact as Harrison. In 2011, Worilds’s positive plays increased Pittsburgh’s probability of winning each game in which he played by six percent, putting him 76th out of the 127 linebackers Advanced NFL Stats evaluated in that year. The following season, his contributions helped the team even less. Worilds’s positive win probability per game (+WPA/G) dropped to 5.3 percent, placing him 91st out of 209 linebackers.
Similarly, Pro Football Focus ranked Worilds 14th out of the 28 3-4 outside linebackers, who were on the field for at least 25 percent of their team’s defensive plays in 2011. He was even worse in 2012, placing 23rd out of 34. In the same two years, Harrison finished sixth and 10th, respectively. In the three main areas in which the site grades linebackers (pass rushing, ability to stop the run and pass coverage), Worilds ranked ahead of Harrison only once in two years, besting his teammate in coverage last season.
However, those absolute numbers do not account for the fact that Worilds was on the field substantially less than Harrison over the past two years. He averaged 45.5 snaps per game in 2011 and 43.5 in 2012. His fellow outside linebacker, by comparison, was on the field for 62 and 70 plays per game, respectively, in those two seasons.
So, some of the difference in their overall impact can be explained by the fact that Worilds simply played a lot less than Harrison. The latter may have had about twice the +WPA/G on the Steelers’ chances of winning every game, but he was also on the field 40 to 60 percent more frequently.
When Pro Football Focus’s grades are similarly adjusted for usage, the gap between Harrison’s and Worilds's performances over the past two years also narrows. In 2011, Worilds ranked seventh in quarterback pressures per snap rushing the passer, just a few spots behind Harrison among the 31 3-4 outside linebackers who played at least 25 percent of their team’s pass-rushing snaps. Undoubtedly more a testament to the Steelers’ overall struggles harassing opposing quarterbacks in 2012 than Worild's promise, he dropped to 18th out of 32, but still finished just ahead of his teammate.
Even after adjusting for snaps played, though, Worilds remained much worse at coming up with big stops on running plays. In 2011, he ranked 14th out of 28 3-4 outside linebackers in the percentage of his tackles that counted as “losses” for the opposing team’s ground game. In 2012, he was 23rd out of 34. Harrison, by comparison, excelled at stuffing running plays, coming in first and third at his position in those two years.
However, though a less impactful run-stopper, Worilds could be counted on to bring down opposing running backs more reliably. In his three years as a pro, Worilds has missed only one tackle on running plays, ranking fifth and first in tackling efficiency in 2011 and 2012, respectively. By comparison, Harrison missed seven tackles in three years and placed eighth and 12th in tackling efficiency in the past two seasons.
Worilds has been much less consistent in pass coverage, but did improve greatly in the past year. In 2011, he allowed the eighth most receptions per snap in coverage among the 27 players at his position who were in coverage for at least 25 percent of opposing teams’ passing plays. He also gave up the sixth most yards per coverage snap. Harrison, by contrast, yielded the fifth fewest receptions and the sixth fewest yards per play.
The following year, Worilds performed much better, allowing the second-fewest receptions and the fourth fewest yards per coverage snap. Harrison was about as effective as the year before, finishing fourth and eighth.
So based on all this, what can Pittsburgh count on getting from Worilds if Harrison departs? If the backup continues to play at the same level on a per-usage basis when he becomes a starter, the team will have a sound, if unspectacular, run defender who is only a little less effective than the incumbent at rushing the passer and covering receivers. More importantly, the Steelers will get that level of production from a player costs about one-tenth as much as Harrison.
Does this mean that Worilds will end up being the devastating defensive force that Harrison has been? Probably not.
Though Worilds is only 24 and should improve with more reps and familiarity with the Steelers’ defensive scheme, Harrison is a once-in-a-generation talent who may not be fully replaceable.
But Worilds's play over the past two years should allow the Steelers to free up cap space without worrying that letting Harrison go will completely destroy Pittsburgh’s linebacking corps.