Steelers' linebacker debate coming to a head

If the Steelers could only revert to the good old days, when they boasted a group of linebackers who made others shudder and helped put their defense near the top of the NFL.

Back, back, back, all the way back ... to the opener of the 2013 season.

What, you have forgotten already?

Tell us the Steelers would not love to have these linebackers open their 2014 season for them: LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds on the outside, Larry Foote and Lawrence Timmons on the inside and Jarvis Jones as the No. 1 backup.

In a perfect salary-cap world (and without free agency), they would take that group into next season and not question how it was done. Those were their starting four to open 2013, but there's a chance two or three of them won't be here when they open 2014.

Although general manager Kevin Colbert persists in saying he believes the team can keep Woodley and sign Worilds, few believe him, even with the salary cap now rising to $130 million, or $7 million more than 2013. One must go, either Worilds as a free agent or Woodley as an oft-injured veteran with a bloated salary-cap hit. One way they might be able to keep both is to ask Woodley to take half of the $8 million salary due him in 2014. They saw how well that worked last year with James Harrison.

Woodley, after a season and a half of injuries and resultant lower production, bounced back nicely for awhile in 2013. He had five sacks after the first six games and started the first nine. But then the old injury bugaboo struck, this time a left calf, and he missed the next three games. In that time, Worilds moved from the right side to the left and thrived. He did so well that when Woodley returned for the 13th game, he was moved to the right side, where he had never played in the NFL. But he left the 14th game with an injury to his other calf and was placed on injured reserve.

Worilds has been rated among the top outside linebackers available in free agency. The Steelers say they want to keep him, but will their efforts fall short as they did with two other young free agents last year in Mike Wallace and Keenan Lewis?

Virtually everyone agrees that, all things being equal, Worilds is more valuable to them right now than Woodley because of health and youth. Many also might agree that Worilds, who led them with eight sacks, had the better 2013 season of the two.

Not everyone, though. If you believe in the analysts at Pro Football Focus, both had good seasons but Woodley's was slightly better. They gave Woodley an overall 10.8 rating (10th among 3-4 outside linebackers in the NFL) to Worilds' 9.5 (12th). More surprising, Woodley had a far better rating as a pass-rusher at 10.7 than the 2.8 they gave Worilds.

Of course, everything that precedes information about Woodley has to contain the "when healthy" phrase, because that has not been as often as they would like the past three seasons. It's one more thing they must decide, if that health history -- mostly muscle injuries -- will improve as he hits his 30th birthday.

It has been discussed often, but in a nutshell (and barring any contract restructuring), Woodley is scheduled to count $13.59 million against their cap this year if they keep him (and count again in 2015 and 2016). If they cut him before June 1, he would count $14.17 million and be wiped off the books for 2015 and 2016. If they cut him after June 1, he would count $5.59 million this year and $8.98 million in 2015.

It's not an easy choice.

Another interested party in the outcome of the Worilds or Woodley decision is Jones. He was drafted in the first round last year and wound up replacing Worilds as the starter on the right side after one game.

He lost that job by the fifth game and regained it when Woodley was injured.

Although he could not keep it, Jones became the first rookie to win a starting job at outside linebacker since the Steelers installed the 3-4 defense in 1982. He started eight games and had one sack, and his coaches would tell you he needed what all their other outside linebackers had -- a time for apprenticeship before he became a starter.

Jones was quick enough, but was overwhelmed at times. The Steelers also want him to hit the weight room.

They do not have much else on the outside. Back is Chris Carter, who has done little in three seasons.

The inside is almost as thin. Timmons has been consistently good the past few years and is in his prime. Larry Foote also played well the past few years right up until his 2013 season ended with a torn biceps in the opener. He is scheduled to make $1.5 million in salary this year, low enough that they should bring him back at age 34.

Vince Williams started 11 games in place of Foote as a rookie last season, but they have no one else they can count on. Sean Spence has missed the past two seasons with a serious knee injury that involved nerve damage. They have no idea what his status might be other than he will give it another go. Veteran Stevenson Sylvester is an unrestricted free agent who was cut last year then re-signed. Terence Garvin made the team as an undrafted rookie from West Virginia and excelled on special teams.

That's it, perhaps the thinnest the Steelers have ever been at linebacker. In little more than a week, it could get a whole lot thinner.

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