For much of the offseason, the talk has been whether or not the Pittsburgh Steelers would have to choose between cornerback Ike Taylor and outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
It really wasn’t much of a question. There was little doubt that the Steelers wouldn’t let one of the best young pass rushers in the league go just as he is about to hit his prime, and it is unlikely that they’ll let their only viable starting cornerback go either.
Woodley was secured last week when Pittsburgh placed the franchise tag on him, meaning that he will be one of the highest paid linebackers in the league this season after being one of the best bargains last season.
An extension is almost certain for Woodley, pending a new CBA.
A new contract would likely put him in the neighborhood of fellow outside linebacker James Harrison, who signed a five-year, $51.75 million contract in 2009. The contract included $20 million in guaranteed money.
Even if Woodley does not receive a $50 million contract, it is almost certain that he will receive around $10 million as a signing bonus, which would put him as the second highest paid linebacker in Steelers history.
Besides quarterback, pass rushers are right there with left tackle and cornerback as the elite positions in the NFL.
But with potentially $100 million invested into their outside linebackers, will the Steelers be able to afford Lawrence Timmons, who is entering the final year of his contract?
Who is more valuable to the Steelers defense?
As stated before with Woodley, the Steelers do not often let go of outstanding players entering the prime of their career. But Timmons, who is more than a year younger than Woodley, is not one of the premium pass rushers in the league. He plays on the inside where the Steelers once let a promising, yet oft-injured, linebacker go in Kendrell Bell.
After struggling to crack the lineup his first two seasons, Timmons finally broke through in 2010, leading the team in tackles and living up to some of the expectations that he had placed on him as Mike Tomlin’s first-ever draft pick with the Steelers.
Timmons displayed the athleticism that Tomlin and the Steelers scouting department saw in him three years ago. He is Pittsburgh’s best linebacker in pass coverage, and his run defense stepped up this year.
With James Farrior’s career nearing an end, Timmons importance to the team becomes even greater as the Steelers do not have a definite replacement for either linebacker, though Stevenson Sylvester has the look of a player and Larry Foote could be used as a backup plan.
However, can the Steelers afford to pay three linebackers $8 to $10 million per year?
The Steelers need to have salary available to sign Taylor to a new deal this offseason, as well as Troy Polamalu, who is entering the final year of his contract. Mike Wallace’s rookie deal also expires after the 2011 season, and he will be due for a big raise.
With these big name players needing new deals at other areas of the team, Pittsburgh may have to make some tough decisions at the linebacker position.
Pittsburgh still has time though, as Timmons is still a season away from free agency.
A lot can happen in a season. Aaron Smith will be finishing out his deal, and if he decides to continue to play, he will not make nearly as much. Hines Ward will also be another season closer to retirement.
Freed-up salary from aging veterans could be used to lock up two of the team’s most talented linebackers.
Harrison will also be another year older, and the question will be whether or not he can maintain his elite level of play beyond next season. Pittsburgh did spend a second-round draft choice last season on Jason Worilds to eventually take over for Harrison.
Even as great as Harrison has been for the Steelers, it would not be prudent for the team to keep Harrison, who is on the downside of his career, over Woodley, who has not even peaked.
My guess is that they pay all three.
The Steelers are one of the best teams at managing their roster and always seem to find a way to keep their high-priced talent in their prime, while balancing the roster with cheaper veterans and inexpensive young players on their rookie contracts.
It is decisions like these that have kept the Steelers near the top of the NFL since Heinz Field opened in 2001. There is no reason to believe that things will change anytime soon.