On Monday, the Pittsburgh Steelers announced they have given the transition tag to linebacker Jason Worilds for 2014, which is worth $9.754 million for the season. Worilds wasted no time to agree to the offer, doing so on Tuesday according to Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
While it's possible that the Steelers could still lose Worilds to another team—the transition tag gives the Steelers the right to match any offer given to Worilds but does not include compensation if Worilds does move on—the odds are high that he'll remain in Pittsburgh through 2014.
That makes things interesting at the outside linebacker position and particularly puts LaMarr Woodley's roster spot in jeopardy.
Woodley, who turns 30 years old in November, has missed 14 games since signing a six-year, $61.5 million deal prior to the 2011 season and five games in 2013. He hasn't had double-digit sacks since 2010, and his combined tackles have been under 40 in the seasons since, as well. To say he hasn't lived up to the contract is an understatement.
That's the reason for the Steelers finding a way to retain Worilds, who was set to be an unrestricted free agent on March 11.
But that large cap hit, which will remain unless the team uses it as a stepping stone to a more affordable long-term contract, could also dictate playing time. The 26-year-old had a solid 2013 season, which included starts on both the right and left sides. He had 63 combined tackles, eight sacks and two forced fumbles on the year.
Now, the Steelers have two outside linebackers on the roster making starter cash, while another, Jarvis Jones, was the team's first-round pick in the 2013 draft. None of these three will want to be bit players—not with the salaries of the former two and not with the draft pedigree of the latter. Something will have to give, and that something points to Woodley's job security.
|Jason Worilds' Career & 2013 Stats|
The only issue, of course, is the salary cap. Even with Wednesday's contract restructures/extensions for tight end Heath Miller and safety Troy Polamalu, the Steelers were still significantly over the NFL's $133 million salary cap for 2014. Additional relief, to the tune of over $8 million, came later on Wednesday with the Steelers releasing offensive tackle Levi Brown, cornerback Curtis Brown and linebacker Larry Foote, according to the team's official Twitter account.
If the Steelers release Woodley, they'd have to do so carefully. Releasing him outright on March 11 would only save the team $580,000, while the resultant cap charge in dead money would be over $14 million for 2014. That could be broken up over two years if he's released with a June 1 designation, but that means the financial savings wouldn't reach the Steelers' coffers until that time—when it could be too late.
|LaMarr Woodley's Career & 2013 Stats|
To cut Woodley only a June 1 designation makes financial sense. The only other option otherwise available to the Steelers and Woodley is to come to an agreement on a pay cut for the linebacker, which would also implicitly include his demotion to backup.
This wouldn't be a restructuring and extension like the ones Polamalu and Miller received, but an outright reduction of salary. This may not sit well with Woodley if he believes he's still deserving of a starting job—and the kind of paycheck that comes with it.
Ultimately, the Steelers need to manage both their salary cap and their roster better. They have found themselves over the cap heading into the start of the league year for far too long, and part of that situation has been exacerbated by bloated contracts awarded to players who are no longer living up to their end of the deal.
Woodley cannot stay healthy and hasn't been the same productive player since his contract extension in 2011. With Worilds on the transition tag—and likely headed for a long-term deal—and Jones waiting for his chance to be a starter, Woodley must either be released with a June 1 designation or have his salary reduced significantly.
The message has been sent: Woodley is no longer part of the Steelers' long-term plans. Now, it's a matter of how they go about putting this clear message into practice in a way that benefits the Steelers financially as much as possible.