PITTSBURGH -- This is the 10th in a series in which I will examine every position relative to the 2013 season -- and take a look ahead.
The good: Worilds broke out in 2013, leading the Pittsburgh Steelers with eight sacks and also recording 29 quarterback pressures. The Steelers had been criticized for taking Worilds in the second round of the 2010 NFL draft over linebacker Sean Lee, a Pittsburgh native who has developed into Pro Bowler in Dallas. But Worilds finally put everything together after three seasons in which he didn’t get a chance to showcase his skills much because of the players in front of him. LaMarr Woodley played well when he was able to stay on the field, and Jarvis Jones showed flashes while becoming the first rookie to start at outside linebacker since the Steelers went to a 3-4 defense in 1982.
The bad: Woodley, the highest-paid defensive player in Steelers history, missed five games because of a nagging calf injury and ended the season on injured reserve. The seventh-year veteran has missed 14 games since signing a six-year, $61.5 million contract in 2011, and the Steelers have to be frustrated that Woodley can’t seem to stay healthy. Jones managed just one sack despite starting eight games and playing 612 snaps. He appeared to be one of the most NFL-ready players in the 2013 draft, but clearly needs to get stronger.
The money (2014 salary-cap numbers): Woodley has a monster cap hit of $13.59 million, and he will likely have to take a pay cut for the Steelers to consider keeping him. The Steelers almost certainly have to make a choice between Woodley and Worilds, with the latter telling ESPN.com that he will pursue an opportunity somewhere else if he doesn’t receive assurances from the Steelers that they see him as a long-term starter. The Steelers have a chance at signing Worilds before he becomes an unrestricted free agent on March 11 if they identify him as a core player on their defense and, more importantly, make that known to the fourth-year veteran. Jones has a cap hit of $1.98 million in 2014, and he will be a bargain if he makes the kind of jump the Steelers expect out of him in his second season.
Draft priority: Pretty high. With Woodley or Worilds likely to be playing elsewhere in 2014, the Steelers need to add depth at outside linebacker and bring in a promising young pass-rusher they can develop. They can never have enough edge pass-rushers, and though they are unlikely to use their first-round pick on an outside linebacker, don’t be surprised if the Steelers take one early in the draft.