Just a few weeks ago, it looked like the Pittsburgh Steelers couldn’t afford to keep Jason Worilds in 2014.
The 25-year-old Worilds becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season. In his first three seasons, the outside linebacker had just 10 sacks. Considering their salary-cap constraints, it seemed like a no-brainer for the Steelers to let him go.
Now, if he keeps playing the way he has, the Steelers can’t afford not to keep Worilds.
Worilds is coming off a career-high 10 tackles and the fourth two-sack game of his career in Thursday’s 22-20 loss at Baltimore. The Steelers couldn’t have asked for anything more from Worilds in that game.
Michael Oher of “Blind Side” fame looked helpless most of the night trying to block Worilds.
Perhaps there should be a “Blind Side” sequel, because Oher no longer plays on the blind side. He’s the Ravens’ right tackle, and Worilds took him on because he’s also moved to the other side of the field.
Worilds replaced an injured LaMarr Woodley three weeks ago at left outside linebacker, and it’s had a light-switch effect on the Steelers’ 2010 second-round draft pick. He leads the Steelers with six sacks this season. If he gets one more sack, he’ll have more than any Steeler last season.
Five of Worilds’ sacks have come in the last five games. He didn’t have any sacks in the Steelers’ 27-11 win at Cleveland, but according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he hit Browns quarterbacks seven times.
The expectation for 2013 was that Worilds would have another nondescript season, the Steelers would let him walk as a free agent, and Woodley and Jarvis Jones would be the outside-linebacker tandem of the future.
However, Worilds’ recent performance and Woodley’s third injury absence in three seasons have twisted the plot.
Woodley had five sacks in the first six games this season, but went three games without a sack and has sat out the last three games with a calf injury. He missed three games last season and six games in 2011 with ankle and hamstring injuries.
Before worrying about re-signing Worilds, the Steelers have four remaining regular-season games they must win to have any hope of making the playoffs.
Of more immediate concern is what to do with Woodley when he returns. The Steelers would be foolish to move Worilds from the side of the field where he has played his best football. At right outside linebacker, Jones has started the last three games but hasn’t done enough to win the job permanently. Woodley can replace him. He told ESPN he would have no problem moving to the right side.
Imagine what Worilds could do with all the blocking attention a healthy Woodley would demand. If Worilds keeps chasing quarterbacks the way he has for the last three weeks, the Steelers have to find a way to keep him.
Worilds seems to be following the same career path as cornerback Keenan Lewis.
Like Worilds, Lewis developed slowly in his first three seasons and made a big leap in his contract year. The Steelers let him go to the Saints as a free agent because they figured Cortez Allen was ready to replace Lewis as a starter. What they didn’t figure was that Ike Taylor would begin showing his age. Pro Football Focus gives him the worst overall grade of the 39 cornerbacks who have played at least 75 percent of their team’s snaps through 12 games.
The Steelers also brought back William Gay during the offseason, and his emergence has been a pleasant surprise.
Still, Lewis has three interceptions this season. That’s more than any Steeler.
Now the Steelers have another late bloomer in Worilds. They can’t let him get away.
If Worilds is in another uniform next year, their starting outside linebackers would be a soon-to-be-30-year-old who hasn’t played a full season since 2010 and an unproven Jones.
So how can the Steelers keep Worilds under the salary cap? Ben Roethlisberger, Woodley, Lawrence Timmons, Troy Polamalu and Taylor occupy more than half of the Steelers’ projected cap space in 2014, according to Spotrac.
Well, Woodley still should be a Steeler next season, but not for his $8 million base salary. He has nine sacks over the past 25 months. If he can’t stay on the field, and beat more blockers when he is on the field, the Steelers should think about cutting his pay.
Taylor, 33, doesn’t look like he’ll be worth the $7 million he’s scheduled to make next season. The Steelers could work some cap room there, too.
If Woodley and Taylor ever want to be in the playoffs again, they should work with the Steelers and help them re-sign Worilds, who right now is better than both of them.