PITTSBURGH – It figures to be a busy offseason for the Steelers, who are guaranteed to have their second consecutive non-winning season after last Sunday’s 34-28 loss to Miami.
Perhaps the biggest issue hanging over the team is what to do at outside linebacker.
The Steelers (5-8) have three games remaining this season, including one Sunday night at Heinz Field against Cincinnati (9-4), with which to solve that Rubik’s Cube-like problem.
LaMarr Woodley is the team’s highest-paid defender, but leg injuries in each of the past three seasons have limited his production. Woodley has five sacks in 10 games this season.
Meanwhile, fourth-year linebacker Jason Worilds has emerged as a force, recording seven sacks in his past nine games to give him a team-high eight.
And with this year’s first-round draft pick, Jarvis Jones, waiting, the Steelers have to figure out which starting combination might be the best – or at least the one they can best afford – moving forward into 2014.
Compounding the issue is Woodley’s salary and the 25-year-old Worilds’ impending free agency. Woodley is scheduled to account for $13.59 million against next year’s salary cap.
A year after allowing emerging cornerback Keenan Lewis to leave as a free agent following his fourth season, the Steelers might be wary of continuing to permit good, young defensive talent such as Worilds to walk out the door. Then again, they might not have a choice.
Simply releasing or trading Woodley and signing Worilds is not as simple as it sounds.
A trade would have to involve a team willing to take on Woodley’s future salary, something that could be difficult considering teams know the Steelers’ current cap situation.
If the Steelers release Woodley, who turns 30 in November and has two years remaining on his current contract, it would cost them $14.17 million against their 2014 salary cap. In other words releasing Woodley would cost the Steelers an additional $580,000 against its salary cap.
The Steelers could designate Woodley’s release for after June 1, as it did with offensive tackle Willie Colon last spring. That would defer $8.6 million of Woodley’s cap hit to 2015, but Woodley’s $13.59 million cap hit would still count against the team’s books until his release.
For a team that is currently $10 to $15 million over next year’s salary cap, that might not be an option.
The Steelers also could choose to keep both by releasing veterans at other positions or renegotiating some contracts and keeping Woodley, Worilds and Jones as part of the core of their defense. One easy cut is offensive tackle Levi Brown, whom the Steelers acquired via a mid-season trade with Arizona. Brown, who never played a down for the Steelers before getting injured, is scheduled to count $6.8 million against the team’s 2014 cap.
Against Miami, the Steelers rotated Jones and Woodley, who was coming back from a calf injury that had sidelined him for the previous three games, at right outside linebacker, while Worilds played left outside linebacker. It was the first start of Woodley’s career at right outside linebacker.
The Steelers also has used a hybrid defense in which it keeps all three outside linebackers on the field, a package that could be used extensively this week against Cincinnati, which employs a lot of three receiver offensive sets.
“I definitely think it provides a window of opportunity for us to talk about a multitude of things, of rotations and even utilizing all three guys together,” said Tomlin.
The Steelers also could look to move one of the three to inside linebacker for 2014 – if Worilds can be re-signed.
“Or any of the guys, inside or on two feet in a mixer-like approach or a hybrid front,” said Tomlin. “The Cincinnati Bengals are doing similar things with (former Steelers star) James Harrison.”
Interestingly, the Steelers released Harrison in the offseason as a cost-cutting move, only to find themselves in a similar situation this season.
Worilds was viewed as keeping a spot warm for Jones when he opened the season at Harrison’s right outside linebacker position. But he as excelled in recent weeks, particularly while subbing for Woodley on the left side the past month.
“I believe he’s emerging and developing like all players should,” said Tomlin.
Odds and end zones
Tomlin said offensive tackle Kelvin Beachum (knee) and defensive end Brett Keisel (foot) could return to play against the Bengals after sitting out against Miami. … Tomlin said the Steelers will not use the final three games of the season to “look” at young players at certain positions. “I put preparing and winning this week at a premium,” Tomlin said. … Tomlin refused to answer a question regarding the potential loss of a draft pick by the Steelers for his actions two weeks ago in a loss at Baltimore. Tomlin was fined $100,000 for being outside the designated area during a kick return by the Ravens. Several reports also have indicated the NFL continues to contemplate making the Steelers forfeit a draft choice for the infraction. … The Steelers signed defensive end Hall Davis to their practice squad and released former Pitt star running back Ray Graham.