Pittsburgh Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert was asked weeks ago whether or not the team had any intention of using either the franchise tag or the transition tag this offseason on any of their players, and at the time, it likely seemed even to Colbert somewhat of an absurd notion given the team’s salary cap problems.
The landscape changed overnight, however, when it was announced that the salary cap for the 2014 season would be a full $6.7 million more than originally anticipated, and exactly $10 million more than last season.
At the time he was asked the question, he said that the team didn’t plan on using either tag this offseason in a way that suggested the ‘probably not’ response was closer to ‘of course not’. Just a few weeks later, however, we have the answer in the affirmative after the team applied the rarely used transition tag to outside linebacker Jason Worilds.
Under the transition tag, Worilds will be signed to a one-year salary that is the average of the top 10 salaries at his position, which comes in at just under $10 million in this case, provided that another team does not work out a deal with him during free agency that the Steelers are unwilling or unable to match.
That, however, shouldn’t be too much of a concern. Even though it only takes one team to do something out of the ordinary, the transition tag should be enough for the Steelers to keep Worilds in Pittsburgh this season.
After all, the transition tag already allocates nearly $10 million in salary cap space for Worilds this season, provided that an extension is not worked out before the beginning of free agency in about a week.
You would have to think that if the Steelers are willing to tuck away that big a portion of their cap room on Worilds, then obviously they understand that’s a price they can and are willing to afford.
To put it quite simply, retaining Worilds was the number one priority in free agency for the Steelers this offseason. When the team president mentions one specific player by name out of 21 scheduled unrestricted free agents, you can take to the bank that they are very serious about retaining him.
That is why the Steelers were willing to create $10 million in cap space for him, which in theory could be lowered should the team work out an extension with him at some point between now and the start of the regular season.
They have already (presumably) given tight end Heath Miller an extension to lower his cap hit. Troy Polamalu is another candidate for an extension, while Antonio Brown and Lawrence Timmons will likely be restructured in addition to accommodate other offseason financial obligations. Then there is of course Ike Taylor’s contract, which will either be reduced by a few million dollars or terminated altogether.
Quite simply, the Steelers are likely prepared to do anything in their power that does not enter the realm of the absurd in order to retain Worilds, which could include accelerating the process of an extension with Ben Roethlisberger if necessary to create cap space to match a potential front-loaded contract by another team.
The transition tag does provide the team with certain advantages outside of simply giving them the right of first refusal. For one, it provides them with a safety net while allowing Worilds and his agent to establish his actual market value.
Additionally, the signing period for transition players is delayed by 11 days. The vast majority of the action in free agency, particularly the top-level action, occurs in the first few days of the process. A team must be willing to put a large part of their offseason plans on hold for nearly two weeks in order to make a run at Worilds, if that is their prerogative, and that’s a big risk to take if it doesn’t work out.
Given the difficulty of projecting his actual worth based on his career up to this point, it may be best to let Worilds play this season under the transition tag to see if the second half of the past year wasn’t a fluke.
If the Steelers don’t sign him to a long-term deal, they could be in no man’s land until nearly the start of training camp, as the signing period for a transition player extends into July. But if it came down to it, and the Steelers needed more cap space to match another team’s contract, they have the trump card of LaMarr Woodley’s contract, which they could terminate if they hadn’t already, and would create $8 million in space.