Ron Cook: Getting it right at outside linebacker is crucial for Steelers

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For a team that has produced so many great linebackers, Pro Bowl linebackers, even Hall of Fame linebackers, the Steelers suddenly are having a hard time getting it right at, arguably, the most important position in their 3-4 defense.

The Steelers gave LaMarr Woodley a huge, multi-year deal before the 2011 season, and he hasn’t come close to living up to it. They drafted Jarvis Jones in the first round of the NFL draft last spring and, though it’s way too early to label him a bust, he had a disappointing rookie season. Now, after misjudging the potential of Jason Worilds a year ago, they are facing the possibility of having to overpay to keep him.

Oh, for the days of Jack Ham.

Clearly, the Steelers want to keep Worilds, who, before they put their transition tag on him Monday, was set to become an unrestricted free agent next week. Now, the team has the right to match any offer he receives. If no other club gives him an offer sheet, the Steelers will have to pay him $9,754,000 next season in a one-year deal.

The transition tag makes some sense. It means the Steelers won’t have to bid against themselves for Worilds. Another club will determine his market value, and they can decide if he’s worth it. But putting the more restrictive franchise tag on Worilds would have made more sense. It would have cost the Steelers $11,455,000 for him next season, but it virtually would have assured he would stay. No team would give up two first-round draft choices plus the big money to lure him away. The Steelers could then try to do a long-term contract with Worilds.

The Steelers could have avoided this if they had signed Worilds to a multiyear deal before last season. They generally sign the players they want before those players get to free agency. There are exceptions. Ryan Clark re-signed after becoming a free agent. Ike Taylor also re-signed after his previous contract expired. But it’s much harder to sign a player after he reaches free agency. The Steelers didn’t feel comfortable doing a deal with Worilds last summer based on his limited production — 10 sacks in 42 games — in his first three NFL seasons. He responded by becoming their best pass rusher in 2013 with eight sacks in 15 games. Now, the team must pay a lot more to keep him.

No matter what, Worilds is going to get a lot of money based, basically, on one half season of production. If the Steelers give it to him, they have to hope he’ll do a better job earning it than Woodley has done. It’s hard to blame the team for signing Woodley to a six-year, $61.5 million contract after the 2010 season. He had 35 sacks in his previous three seasons. It’s also hard to say Woodley got fat and happy right after taking the big deal. He had nine sacks in the first eight games of 2012 and was in the conversation for AFC defensive player of the year. But Woodley has been hurt and unproductive since. It’s fair to think the Steelers would love to get rid of him and his contract.

That’s why the Steelers put the transition tag on Worilds, to give themselves a fighting chance of keeping him. They can take a big run at him. The NFL salary cap for 2014 increased to $133 million last week, up $10 million from last season. The team also could release Taylor and save $7 million. Taylor had a bad season in 2013 and might be done as a top-notch cornerback.

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert has said the team could keep Worilds and Woodley, but that seems extremely unlikely. But it’s also farfetched to think they could lose Worilds and Woodley. That would leave them with Jones and little else at outside linebacker. They could bring in a free agent to fill the hole, but that’s not their way. They also could take an outside linebacker high in the draft in May, but it’s a tough transition from college to their defensive system. Jones was the most recent player to show that. He came out of Georgia as a big-time pass rusher but managed just one sack last season. The team is hoping added strength and a year’s experience will make him better next season.

Everything keeps coming back to Worilds or Woodley. The Steelers need to get it right this time. They need to find a way to re-sign Worilds and then release Woodley.

Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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