ESPN's Adam Schefter reported on Monday that the Pittsburgh Steelers will be releasing outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley when free agency begins on Tuesday, with a June 1 designation that will still allow him to sign with a new team immediately.
This comes as no surprise, as the Steelers offered fellow outside linebacker Jason Worilds a $9.754 transition tag that he promptly signed and 2013 first-round draft pick Jarvis Jones eagerly awaits his shot to start.
As Worilds said himself in January, the only way he would feel comfortable remaining in Pittsburgh is if he became a starter in 2014. Speaking to Scott Brown of ESPN.com, Worilds indicated that he made his presence felt in 2013, when he finally earned ample playing time:
I wouldn't want to fall back into (not starting) again...I've just been patient and (waiting to) see how the Steelers view me...It's been rough just to get on the field, especially when you probably could have helped the team in years past, but you just weren't given an opportunity. The opportunity came this year, and I did well with it. For me to get out there and play consistently I kind of feel like I showed some people what I could do.
With this new deal, Worilds is assured to be a starter for at least 2014, making Woodley of little use to the team that drafted him. The only thing that would have saved Woodley's job in Pittsburgh is a pay cut and demotion to backup, neither of which happened, prompting his release.
Now, the 29-year-old pass-rusher will be looking for a job with another team. However, how much could he realistically contribute considering his recent history with the Steelers?
Woodley's age is the least of the concerns surrounding how much he has left in the tank. His injury history will dictate what kind of contract he'll receive from another team and how much playing time he'll get in 2014.
|LaMarr Woodley's Production in Pittsburgh|
Though Woodley has 57 sacks and 299 combined tackles in his seven NFL seasons, the bulk of that production came prior to the 2011 season, when he received a six-year, $61.5 million contract. From his rookie season in 2007 through 2010, Woodley had 39 sacks compared to 18 total from 2011 through 2013.
A tempered effort on the heels of such a big payday could be a factor in Woodley's drop-off in performance. However, even more influential on his diminishing production were his injuries.
Since signing that contract in 2011, Woodley has missed a total of 14 games, most as a result of lower-leg injuries. He missed six games in 2011 and three in 2012 with a hamstring injury, and was placed on injured reserve to close out the 2013 season with a calf injury after appearing in just 11 games.
Whether these repeated injuries are a sign of a body that is progressively breaking down or are due to poor conditioning, they will serve as the biggest red flags for any team interested in his services. They will also dictate the length and lucrativeness of his next contract.
With a dubious injury history, Woodley could be on the fast track to a one-year so-called "prove it" deal where he'll need to show his ability to stay healthy and be productive in order to earn long-term job security.
That's not to say that Woodley couldn't end up being a starter on a pass-rush-hungry team for that one-year span. But he'll need to demonstrate that he can hold up through a full 16-game season if his career is to continue for many more years.
Ultimately, Woodley's age and injury history could see him best suited as a situational pass-rusher, one who doesn't play every snap and thus reduces his risk for injury. Even if he's not as dominant as he once was, Woodley can still be a disruptive force for opposing quarterbacks. Using him situationally will keep his legs fresh and hopefully increase productivity on his limited snap count.
A good example of this is fellow former Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison. Harrison ultimately landed with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2013 to work the edge in their 4-3 defense. Harrison received a two-year deal from the Bengals worth $4.45 million with just $1.2 million in guaranteed money to be a role player.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Harrison played just 409 of a possible 1,048 defensive snaps in 2013, most commonly either defending the run (170 snaps) or as a pass-rusher (149 snaps).
He had two sacks on the season and just 31 combined tackles, but was an important part of their defensive rotation, with 17 stops—tackles for a loss or no gain or sacks—in 2013. This could prove a template for Woodley's usage, granted a not-so-desperate team decides to give him a chance.
A desperate team, however, must hedge its bets with the injury-prone Woodley and restrict the financial resources committed to him. Woodley definitely has a future in the NFL, but it's a limited one. He'll need to prove he can remain healthy and show more than just flashes of what made the Steelers decide to pay him so handsomely in 2011.
Woodley's release from Pittsburgh could be the beginning of the end for him or the beginning of a career renaissance. But there's no doubt whatever team signs him will be looking to financially protect itself and that Woodley will have to justify he's more than the shell of a player he appeared to be in 2013.