When it comes to the outside linebackers, those decisions will be vital. The backbone of any great 3-4 defense is its ability to rush the passer on the outside. The Steelers essentially have three players, Jarvis Jones, LaMarr Woodley and Jason Worilds, as their rotation currently.
Woodley has missed multiple games over the past three seasons due to injuries, and with his bloated salary-cap number for 2014, the possibility of the Steelers cutting ties with the seven-year vet is very real.
That means Worilds is going to have significant leverage in getting a new contract.
But, has he earned it?
Over the past five games, Worilds has been on fire, racking up 34 tackles and four sacks. On the season, Worilds has 60 tackles and seven sacks while alternating between a starting and backup role.
However, has that earned him a fat free-agent contract, or should the Steelers let him go as they have other high-priced free agents in recent seasons?
The analytics gurus at Pro Football Focus (subscription required) give us an excellent snapshot of Worilds' season. The graphic below illustrates Worilds' ascension this season.
An impressive rise for sure. However, enthusiasm must be tempered somewhat. The past five weeks have been tremendous, with one caveat. During this five-game stretch, Worilds has played left outside linebacker in four of them. In the preceding nine games, Worilds was used exclusively at right outside linebacker.
It is not a reach to infer from this data that Worilds is far better suited to play over a right tackle or tight end than a left tackle. The fact is, almost every rush outside linebacker in the league would rather have this scenario if given their druthers.
The rub is, when healthy, Woodley is the starting left outside linebacker.
So, what are the Steelers to do? If they elect to keep Woodley, perhaps reworking his contract to be more cap-friendly, can they possibly justify paying Worilds big money, knowing he might fail going back to the right side? (Not to mention, as good as he has been the past five games, his total body of work is less than stellar.)
I would argue no.
Woodley and Worilds are linked by this: If you pay one, you cannot pay for the other. These types of contracts are a part of the reason this team is in the situation it is now. Should the Steelers decide to move on from Woodley and then sign Worilds to play on the left side, where he has excelled? However, if Woodley returns, Worilds cannot demand the same type of contract to play on the right side.
This is a tricky spot for the Steelers and Worilds. He'll try to make as much money as he can in this next contract. Entering into his fifth season, this is going to be his best shot to get that big contract that will carry him to that magical age of 30.
There's a chance that Worilds will be in demand on the free-agent market. As more teams transition to a 3-4 defense, pass-rush specialists are a commodity. His value is going to be inflated, and it would not be prudent for the Steelers to get caught up in that.
However, much like with cornerback Keenan Lewis and wide receiver Mike Wallace last year, the Steelers' front office may feel that Worilds won't be worth the exorbitant offers he'll get and let him leave, regardless of Woodley's status. Should that happen, the needs of this team for the NFL draft would be altered significantly.