PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have 21 players who can become free agents on March 11. Here is a look at the three who figure to draw the most interest on the open market if they do not re-sign with the Steelers before the start of free agency:
OLB Jason Worilds: His breakout season couldn't have come at a better time as Worilds is in position to cash in after emerging as the Steelers' best pass-rusher in 2013. Worilds' value will be enhanced if players such as Carolina's Greg Hardy and Washington's Brian Orakpo are tagged or if they sign long-term deals to remain with their respective teams. That would further dilute a free-agent crop that is not exactly flush with pass-rushers. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger fetched a five-year, $40 million contract last year but the Browns way overpaid for a player who has 20 sacks in five NFL seasons. Worilds isn't going to command that kind of money after starting just one season though all it takes if he hits the open market is for one team to break the bank for him. A more realistic point of reference when it comes to assessing Worilds' value may be Brian Robison. The Vikings' defensive end signed a four-year, $28.3 million contract last October with more than $12 million guaranteed. Robison has been more productive than Worilds -- he has 25 1/2 sacks in the last three seasons -- but Worilds only turns 26 on Monday while Robison is 30.
Chances of Worilds re-signing with Steelers: I don't like them if he hits the open market unless the Steelers are willing to pay more than they probably would like to retain the fourth-year veteran. It would be ideal for the Steelers to sign Worilds before March 11 but if you are in his position why not let the market set his price, especially if there is a dearth of pass-rushers in this free-agent class? Worilds has said he wants assurances that the Steelers view him as a long-term starter at outside linebacker. While general manager Kevin Colbert can't make any guarantees as far as his role on the team Worilds will know how highly the Steeler think of him by how much they are willing to pay to keep him off the open market.
WR Emmanuel Sanders: The fourth-year veteran had a solid, if sometimes maddening season, after cracking the starting lineup in 2013. Sanders established career-highs across the board, including six touchdown catches, but he also had some key drops. Don't be surprised though if a team is willing to pay him in the $5 million a season range a year after the Patriots were willing to give up a third-round draft pick to sign Sanders, then a restricted free agent, to a one-year $2.5 million contract. Riley Cooper signed a five-year, $25 million contract to stay in Philadelphia, taking a wide receiver out of the free-agent class and perhaps setting parameters for the kind of deal that Sanders, who turns 27 next month, is hoping to ink.
Chances of Sanders re-signing with the Steelers: It's hard to imagine a scenario in which he returns to Pittsburgh. The Steelers will let the market set Sanders' value before deciding if they want to make a run at keeping the former third-round draft pick. Teams are likely to bid on Sanders, one of the top receivers in an underwhelming class. Some team is going to pay Sanders the going rate for No. 2 wide receivers who still have upside, and if that is the case the Steelers are prepared to go with second-year man Markus Wheaton opposite Pro Bowler Antonio Brown.
DE Ziggy Hood: The Steelers' first-round pick in 2009 has not lived up to expectations though it would be unfair to call him a bust. Hood is one of the strongest players on the team, and he is the epitome of an effort-guy, but he lacks the athleticism to consistently push the pocket or chase down opposing backs when a play is run away from his side of the defense. Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season though he still played a lot and tied his career-high with 40 tackles while adding three sacks. He is one of three defensive ends on the roster who can become an unrestricted free agent in less than two weeks, and lack of depth at the position is the strongest argument for the Steelers re-signing Hood.
Chances of Hood re-signing with the Steelers: Not much better than Sanders'. The Steelers appear willing to let the market set Hood's price as well, and he may be attractive to teams that play 4-3 defenses and need help up front. Hood played nose tackle in a 4-3 defense in college. He did not line up directly over the center, which may be the best position for him. Hood, who just turned 27, could command $3 million a year on the open market. If that is the case the Steelers won't bid on the player who could not establish himself as a long-term starter in Pittsburgh.