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Robinson: Steelers all but have to keep Woodley, but what about Worilds?

| Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013, 9:10 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker Jason Worilds sacks Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill on Sunday, Dec. 8 2013 at Heinz Field.

As the Steelers begin weighing personnel moves they'll make before next season, one appears to be obvious.

They need to find a way to bring back outside linebacker Jason Worilds, who has become a James Harrison-like sack machine with six sacks in six games and more quarterback hits (18) than the rest of their outside linebackers combined. All this production followed a move to left outside linebacker.

“I think he is emerging and developing like all players should,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “He is healthy, more healthy than he has been in recent years. … Also, I think he's a different, athletic matchup for right tackles. It's probably more of a level playing field with the athleticism of some left tackles in terms of matching his skill set.”

Left side or right, it won't be that easy to bring back Worilds.

He likely is playing himself into a contract worth tens of millions of dollars, but the salary cap-challenged Steelers could find such a deal difficult to make. Their most likely route to retaining him is to designate him as their franchise player, but that would guarantee him only one more season in Pittsburgh and could cost $9 million.

Worilds and Brian Orakpo of the Washington Redskins figure to be the two most desirable 3-4 outside linebackers on the market. Worilds will be only 26 next season. He could sign a four-year contract and still not be out of his 20s when it expires.

The two highest-priced outside linebackers this season were the Cleveland Browns' Paul Kruger ($40.5 million, five seasons) and the Philadelphia Eagles' Connor Barwin ($36 million, six seasons).

So why don't the Steelers cut LaMarr Woodley, shed his huge salary and give that money to Worilds, who is five years younger and figures to have a bigger upside? Woodley will be 30 at the midpoint of next season, has had injury issues the past three seasons and has only nine sacks over the past two seasons.

Here's why: Woodley has two seasons remaining on a contract that's worth $8 million in salary in 2014 and $8.58 million in 2015. But here's where it gets complicated: Woodley is set to count $13,590,000 against the salary cap in 2014 and $14,090,000 in 2015.

So if the Steelers cut him before June 1, it would cost them more ($580,000) than it would to keep him and pay him in 2014. That's because the $14,170,000 in dead money owed to him (accumulated from various bonuses and contract restructurings) becomes due immediately.

The Steelers could do what they did with offensive lineman Willie Colon and wait until June 1 to cut him, thus allowing them to defer $8,580,000 of Woodley's cap hit until 2015. But that would mean carrying Woodley on their books, at a sizable cost in salary cap space, for two more seasons. (And they already have $4.4 million in 2014 cap space devoted to writing off Colon's contract.)

Also, Woodley's deal counts $13,590,000 against their cap until June 1. Such an amount would severely restrict their flexibility in signing players during free agency, which begins in early March.

It's just the way the NFL does business. Even if it's not good business for the Steelers.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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