By Ed Bouchette Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In a surprise move, the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday put the transition tag on 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 another contract with a team the Steelers match. The Steelers also could negotiate a long-term deal with Worilds at any point.
The team announced the news just before the Monday afternoon NFL deadline for them to do so. 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 first-round draft choice had Worilds signed elsewhere and they declined to match. Teams could use only one or the other tag, not both.
Free agency begins next Tuesday at 4 p.m. EST, 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 would decide not to match.
In the meantime, the Steelers are negotiating with the agent for tight end Heath Miller to either restructure or extend his contract, sources acknowledged. His contract expires after the 2014 season. Ian Rapoport of the NFL.com reported earlier Monday that the Steelers had restructured Miller’s deal in order to create salary cap space. The only way for them to do that would be either for Miller to take a reduction in salary for 2014 or for the Steelers to extend his contract beyond 2014 and using 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 next Tuesday, which is the start of the NFL’s new calendar year.
For example, releasing tackle Levi Brown would immediately create $6,250,000 room on their salary cap.
The last player whom they 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 both Worilds and Woodley, who counts more than $13 million against their salary 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. EST on Saturday. Previously, teams were not permitted to talk to pending free agents other than their own until they actually became free agents. But that rule was widely abused and, in a nod toward acknowledging that fact, the NFL will now give teams an official three-day start to negotiate contracts before free agency actually begins.
That does not mean that club officials still do not violate the rule by secretly negotiating with players’ agents earlier than permitted.
The new rule allows players to test the market before they really test the market. For example, any of the 21 pending Steelers free agents could theoretically be disappointed by teams’ offers over the weekend and could re-sign with the Steelers before their contracts officially expire 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 Sanders and halfback Jonathan Dwyer in 2013.
The 2014 trade period also starts at 4 p.m. next Tuesday.