2013 taught Pittsburgh Steelers fans an important lesson. This is a franchise that isn't afraid to let veteran free agents leave, even in the prime of their careers. Wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Keenan Lewis and linebacker James Harrison were all free agents in the 2013 offseason.
Unfortunately, the Steelers had backed themselves into a corner in terms of the salary cap to a point that they were unable to sign any of them to new contracts. It was a bitter pill to swallow, and it almost certainly had some negative impact on the outcome of the 2013.
Obviously, the scope of that influence is debatable. Nevertheless, had these players been on the roster, in particular Lewis, things could have gone a little different in 2013.
Here is a list of the current group of unrestricted free agents for 2014.
- Wide receivers: Plaxico Burress, Jerricho Cotchery, Emmanuel Sanders
- Running backs: Jonathan Dwyer, Felix Jones, LaRod Stephens-Howling
- Tight ends: David Johnson, Michael Palmer
- Offensive linemen: Fernando Velasco, Cody Wallace, Guy Whimper
- Defensive linemen: Ziggy Hood, Brett Keisel, Al Woods
- Linebackers: Stevenson Sylvester, Jamaal Westerman, Jason Worilds
- Defensive backs: Will Allen, Ryan Clark
- Specialists: Mat McBriar, Greg Warren
Obviously, not everyone on this list is a big-time contributor and, therefore, not part of a must-sign equation. However, there are three players on this list who are candidates for sure. Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery as well as linebacker Jason Worilds were all integral parts of the 2013 success and would be challenging to replace. But which one is the top priority?
Taking a look objectively, it has to be Worilds. This team's success is predicated on its ability to cause chaos on defense. Worilds is a serious cog on that chaos machine. Even former Steelers' quarterback thinks Worilds is a guy the Steelers must bring back.
Will Jason Worilds be a Steeler next year, Here are my thoughts. Let me know what you think? http://t.co/4XcnEanHeF— Charlie Batch (@CharlieBatch16) December 22, 2013
A decision like this is really made based on two key factors. The first factor is, the cost to replace him. To contrast, replacing a No. 2 wide receiver on a team like the Steelers is a much simpler task than replacing the primary pass-rush specialist on a Dick LeBeau-coached 3-4 defense.
It took Worilds four seasons to get himself in shape both physically and mentally to handle the rigors of playing left outside linebacker. This staff has dedicated time and resources in creating the player who put up eight sacks in only 11 starts in 2013.
Worilds showed tremendous power off the snap and displayed much better leverage as the turned the corner. Worilds was too strong for a tight end, and too quick for an offensive tackle in many cases. And when teams tried to block him with a back, he typically worked them over like a blocking dummy.
To look at Worild's week-to-week performance from a more analytical point of view, the gurus at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) have broken it down quite well. Just look at all that green.
There is no rookie the Steelers could bring in who could impact the defense the way Worilds can and pair that up with the fact that a rookie would likely be starting opposite linebacker Jarvis Jones. Jones is entering his second year and continues to need a veteran presence across from him, while he continues to develop.
The second half of this equation is the cost of losing him. There is nothing in stone that says the Steelers can, or will retain linebacker LaMarr Woodley. Woodley has a 2013 cap hit of $13.59 million. Also, Woodley hasn't played a full season since 2010, incidentally the last time he topped double-digit sacks.
The reality is, there are two ways to look at this. Keeping Woodley virtually assures that Worilds will not be re-signed. Worilds is a starter and wants to be paid like one. However, if Woodley were on the roster, Worilds would either be a rotational player on either side of the line. Keeping Woodley and that cap number also means the contract Worilds would want is not going to be funded.
On the flip side, letting Woodley go gives the Steelers the cap space to re-sign Worilds but a locked-in starting spot. This is the carrot that must be dangled if they want him back on the roster in 2014.
What kind of money will it take to keep Worilds? Here’s the framework of a potential new contract outlined earlier in the offseason.
Worilds' new contract would be a five-year, $30.5 million deal with $12 million guaranteed and a $6 million signing bonus. By season, it would break down this way.
• 2014: $1.5 million guaranteed, $2.7 million against the cap
• 2015: $4.5 million guaranteed, $5.7 million against the cap
• 2016: $5 million, $6.2 million against the cap
• 2017: $6 million, $7.2 million against the cap
• 2018: $7.5 million, $8.7 million against the cap
Whether or not Worilds could command more on the open market is a point of debate. However, it is hoped that the combination of a new long-term deal, paired with a starting spot on the Steelers defense would be motivation enough to keep him. However, without a doubt, Worilds could very well have suitors more than willing to throw him much larger offers.
And make no mistake, if the Steelers want to compete in the AFC North in 2014, they need Worilds. The outside linebacker accounted for nearly 24 percent of the team's total sacks for the season. There is no free agent or rookie who could be expected to come in and reproduce that.
As far as free agents go, this isn't a great group in which to look for a replacement for Worilds either. Some of the top prospects who will be on the market include Anthony Spencer and Brian Orakpo, and they are the only two who approach Worilds' skill level. In fact, it's not hard to say Worilds will be the most sought after rush outside linebacker in free agency.
Orakpo is 27 years old, and Spencer is 30. Meanwhile, Worilds is a 25-year-old linebacker who is already fully incorporated into the system. Hoping to find anyone comparable, even if it means a bit of a bargain, makes no sense from a wins-and-losses standpoint. Again, it's an advantage to have Worilds.
When it comes down to it, Worilds is the free agent with the best chance of having a tremendous impact on this team in 2014. He is also the free agent who would be the most difficult to replace. If there is a must-sign guy among this crew, at this point it has to be Worilds. Let’s just hope the front offense feels as strongly about Worilds' future as the rest of us.