The Pittsburgh Steelers’ decision to utilize the oft-forgotten transition tag on former free-agent-to-be outside linebacker Jason Worilds was a bold move that I believe is a demonstration that the team has the ability to afford to keep him under reasonable circumstances.
The team has already begun the process of renegotiating, restructuring, and terminating contracts in order to create cap space, starting with tight end Heath Miller yesterday, and that will continue for the next week leading up to the official start of the free agency period on the 11th of this month.
In doing so, they are sending the freshly 26-year-old a clear message, and one that should help in contract negotiations: we want you.
There were reports earlier this offseason that Worilds liked it in Pittsburgh just fine and that he was more than amenable to working out a contract with the team prior to free agency, but that he wanted assurances that he was viewed as a starter.
I think $10 million says that. Whether that means giving the heave-ho to LaMarr Woodley or completing the transition to the next generation of pass rushers with second-year linebacker Jarvis Jones on the other side remains to be seen.
The outside linebacker transition tag price is a massive show of faith in a player that has virtually exactly half a season’s worth of truly above the line play. There’s no doubt in my mind that Worilds understands that.
But at the same time, opting for the franchise tag as opposed to using the franchise tag in and of itself also speaks directly to the player.
It literally says ‘you are not a franchise player’; not yet, anyway. Worilds is not yet Von Miller or Aldon Smith or Brian Orakpo; not Clay Matthews or Tamba Hali or even Woodley when he’s actually healthy.
It speaks to his nebulous status as a free agent, who has battled a career not only marred by injury but also one largely spent tucked behind two Pro Bowl-caliber players, and whose performances in replacing them previously had not exactly been game-changing.
And to make it clear, the majority of Worilds’ playing experience prior to the 2013 season did come on the left side, where he found his greatest successes last year. In other words, it wasn’t simply switching sides that created the elevation in play.
Although to some the nearly $10 million price tag of the transition tag might be perceived as breaking the bank, it’s actually an indication of the opposite. This isn’t like when a quarterback is given the franchise tag to give the team time to work out a contract that makes him the highest-paid player at his position, a la Drew Brees.
It’s not uncommon for a player to sign a franchise tag or a transition tag only to sign an extension with the team for a contract valued at a lower per-year rate than the value of the tag. In other words, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Worilds is worth $10 million a year, at least based on the sum total of his career up to this point.
Peyton Manning and Michael Vick, for example, later went on to sign extensions for per-year values less than what they would have earned if kept under the franchise tag. There are many reasons for this, of course. A long-term contract provides stability not only financially, but geographically and domestically.
Long-term contracts also typically include a very large proportion of guaranteed money, which protects against injury. Henry Melton tore his ACL last season while playing under the franchise tag, something every player in that situation fears, as it seriously jeopardizes his bargaining power and his very ability to do his job.
Worilds will be looking for a long-term contract knowing that he is set to become a multi-millionaire regardless. What he’s now seeking is stability. The Steelers also want the stability of having him on the roster for the next several years, and potentially lowering his salary cap would be a bonus. This is the message they are conveying, and I believe the team and the player are on the same page.