Steelers place transition tag on linebacker Worilds

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In a surprise move Monday, the Steelers placed the transition tag on outside linebacker Jason Worilds, guaranteeing them the right to match any offer he might receive in free agency from another team.

The move will cost them $9,754,000 in a one-year deal with Worilds, provided he does not sign a contract with another team that could cost them more if the Steelers match it. They also could negotiate a long-term deal with Worilds at any point.

The team announced the move just before the 4 p.m. NFL deadline to make such a move. It came as a surprise because general manager Kevin Colbert had said it was “doubtful” they would use either the franchise or transition tags on any of their players. That, however, was before the NFL raised the salary cap for 2014 by $10 million over last year.

Using the franchise tag on Worilds would have cost them $11,455,000, but it also would have guaranteed them compensation in the form of a two first-round draft choices had Worilds signed elsewhere and they declined to match. Teams can use one tag or the other, but not both.

Free agency begins at 4 p.m. next Tuesday, and teams do not have to be compliant under the $133 million salary cap until then. Worilds can continue to solicit offers and, if he signs one with another team, the Steelers would have five days to match it or let him go. There would be no compensation from the other team if the Steelers choose not to match the offer.

The Steelers also are negotiating with the agent for tight end Heath Miller to restructure or extend his contract, sources acknowledged. His contract expires after the 2014 season. Ian Rapoport of reported earlier Monday that the Steelers had restructured Miller’s deal in order to create salary-cap space. The only way to do that would be for Miller to take a reduction in salary for 2014 or for the Steelers to extend his contract beyond 2014 and use a signing bonus to reduce his salary-cap number this year.

Miller’s salary-cap number for 2014 is nearly $9.5 million with a salary of $6 million.

The Steelers were projected to be slightly over the $133 million cap before they put the transition tag on Worilds; now they are more than $10 million over on the their top 51 player contracts, which are the only ones that count in the offseason. Through contract restructuring, extensions and/or terminations, they will get into salary-cap compliance when free agency begins, which is the start of the NFL’s new calendar year. For example, releasing offensive tackle Levi Brown would create $6,250,000 in salary-cap room.

The previous player the Steelers tagged was linebacker LaMarr Woodley in 2011 with the franchise. They later came to terms with him on a six-year contract.

Colbert has said the team could keep Worilds and Woodley, who counts more than $13 million against their cap. Designating Worilds as their transition player will test that.

There is a new wrinkle to free agency this year.

Officials from teams can begin negotiating with pending unrestricted free agents other than their own at 4 p.m. Saturday. Previously, teams were not permitted to talk to pending free agents other than their own until they became free agents. But that rule was widely abused and, in a nod to acknowledging that fact, the NFL will give teams an official three-day start to negotiate contracts before free agency begins.

But club officials still would be violating the rules by secretly negotiating with players’ agents earlier than permitted.

These changes, however, will allow the pending free agents to test the market before free agency begins. For example, any of the 21 pending Steelers free agents theoretically could be disappointed by what teams offer them over the weekend and re-sign with the Steelers before their contracts officially expire 4 p.m. next Tuesday.

The Steelers have no restricted free agents this year as the new CBA severely reduced the chances of drafted players becoming RFAs, such as wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders and halfback Jonathan Dwyer did last year.

The 2014 trade period also starts at 4 p.m. next Tuesday.

First Published March 3, 2014 4:32 PM

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