The Steelers’ surprising use of the transition tag on Monday reflects, among other things, the paucity of pass-rushers in this year’s crop of free agents.
It also signals significant differences between the Steelers and outside linebacker Jason Worilds, their top impending free agent, when it comes to a long-term contract.
All the Steelers did by tagging Worilds is assure themselves the right to determine how much they are willing to pay -- or overpay -- the four-year veteran if other teams pursue him in free agency.
Since a team would not have to give up any draft picks should it sign Worilds to a contract that the Steelers decline to match, he figures to still have his share of suitors and perhaps offers.
Worilds led the Steelers with eight sacks last season and showed the kind of impact he can make while starting regularly for the first time in his career. He is only 26, turning that age on the day the Steelers slapped the transition tag on him, which is kind of like getting luggage or a couple of new car tires for your birthday -- practical but lacking the wow factor that a new contract would have provided.
Worilds’ transition tag comes with a one-year contract worth $9.75 million, and if he signs it, the Steelers would hope it is a mere layover on the way to the kind of multiyear deal that would make them and Worilds happy.
The tag is often seen as a negative and something that players generally don’t like. But the Steelers tagging Worilds could provide the assurance he needs to sign the kind of contract that will keep the former second-round draft pick in Pittsburgh well beyond the 2014 season.
Worilds wants the Steelers to see -- and value -- him as a long-term starter. They certainly gave the impression that they do by offering a contract that could scramble their finances as they work to get in compliance with the salary cap.
It may not have been team president Art Rooney II showing up at Worilds’ house with a birthday cake and singing to him, but it is significant that one of only two teams currently over the salary cap is willing to go to this length to keep Worilds.
And this less than three weeks after general manager Kevin Colbert said he doubted that the Steelers would use a tag this year in large part because of their salary-cap situation.
Does that mean Worilds is a lock to return to Pittsburgh? Hardly.
All it takes is one team to overpay, and supply and demand as well as the transition tag's lack of deterrence should embolden at least one organization to make a serious run at Worilds.
In that sense, the question for the Steelers hasn't fundamentally changed.
How much are they willing to pay to keep him?
We should get the answer in a couple of weeks.