With three games now left in the Pittsburgh Steelers 2013 season, a lot of fans are wondering what it might take in order to retain outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent during the offseason. In order to determine that, below are a few things to think about.
First off, as far as outside linebackers go, Worilds will be hot commodity on the free agent market along with Brian Orakpo and perhaps Calvin Pace. I didn't include Anthony Spencer on this list because of him being out most of this season with a knee problem. Besides, Spencer will be 30 years-old in January and when you factor in his knee issue, he won't be in very high demand. Oh, as for Pace, he is 33 years-old, so that leaves really Orakpo as competition for Worilds.
As you can see in the table below, Worilds is the youngest of the projected 3-4 outside linebacker unrestricted free agents and for all practical purposes, also the most productive with three weeks remaining in the season. If he hits free agency, he will have a new contract from a team very quickly.
2014 Unrestricted Free Agent 3-4 OLB Types
So how much is Worilds worth? Below is a list of deals signed by the top outside linebacker types that were unrestricted free agents last season.
Paul Kruger - Browns - Signed a five-year, $40.5 million contract that included a $6 million signing bonus and $20 million in guarantees.
Anthony Spencer (DE) - Cowboys - Signed one-year, $10.627 million contract. Franchise tag fully guaranteed.
Connor Barwin - Eagles - Signed a six-year, $36 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus and $8 million in guarantees.
Manny Lawson - Bills Signed a four-year, $12 million contract that included a $3 million signing bonus.
When you look at the deals above, you would have to figure that Worilds could at least get an average yearly value $5 million, but that would be the extreme low side based on what he has done this year. Remember, there is still three games left in the season and he almost certainly end the season with ten plus sacks. To put it bluntly, if he hits free agency, the Steelers will have a very tough time matching any top offer that he gets from another team.
The Steelers, however, can prevent him from reaching free agency by putting the franchise tag on him. That amount is yet to be determined but figures to be around the $9 million mark. Now, in order to fit that tag underneath their salary cap until a long-term deal can be hammered out, the Steelers would have to clear cap space to accommodate it. That cap clearing would include cutting not only Levi Brown (that's happening regardless), Larry Foote, Ike Taylor and Troy Polamalu for starters and restructuring the contract of Antonio Brown (that's happening regardless). Keep in mind that the team will also be trying to get an extension done with Ben Roethlisberger during the offseason in order to free up 2014 cap space, but there is no guarantee that will be done come franchise tag time.
For those of you wanting to cut or trade LaMarr Woodley after the season, I have already outlined why I do not believe that will happen. Even if they made him a post June 1 casualty, the salary cap savings would not be felt until after that date and by then the decision with Worilds will have already needed to be made.
Let's say that Worilds is somehow franchised, he and his agent would then have the upper hand in contract negotiations as the Steelers will be in a hurry to get a long-term deal done in order to free up more cap space.
So what am I trying to tell you in this post? In short, I just don't see any way possible for the Steelers to keep Worilds past this season unless the Steelers are able to match whatever his best offer winds up being once free agency begins. They will likely have to settle for a 2015 compensatory draft pick and move on.