Mar 112014
 

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And here we thought the heavy lifting was over…

When the 2014 NFL season officially begins this afternoon, the Pittsburgh Steelers will be well under the league mandated $133 million salary cap. In fact, they may even have enough money to go out and sign a couple free agents when free agency kicks off later today. The moves they made to get to this point, however, are quite noteworthy. One in a good way and one in the bad.

First, to the surprise of virtually nobody, All-Pro linebacker LaMarr Woodley was given his walking papers. When Jason Worilds signed his transition tag before the ink was dry, I theorized that he and the Steelers may have the basic framework of a long-term deal in place and were just waiting until the team got it’s salary cap ducks in a row. Regardless, despite Kevin Colbert‘s nonsensical smoke-blowing about keeping both linebackers, there was no way the Black and Gold were going to pay two OLB big money with first round pick Jarvis Jones also needing playing time. Woodley was odd-man out from the word go.

The release marks a shocking downfall for the man I affectionately called Mister Woodley. When the Steelers signed him to a six year $61.5 million contract back in 2010, he was expected to anchor our pass rush for a good part of the decade. Unfortunately, warning bells went off almost immediately as Woodley missed six games that next season, signaling a pattern of being unmotivated, out-of-shape, and unproductive. He’d only miss three games in 2012 but his poor production led even his own teammates to call in to question his work ethic. Last year was another wasted campaign with Woodley playing only eleven games before being placed on IR due to calf injuries.

Woodley showed an occasional flash of his old self at times so he’ll get a chance to play somewhere. There is simply no way the Steelers could justify giving $13 million to a guy who’s always hurt. If he gets his head screwed on straight and stays away from the buffet, Woodley might resurrect his reputation. As things currently stand, to paraphrase Dean Wormer, “Fat, Lazy, and Expensive is no way to go through life, son.”

Yesterday’s other big news  – and this is shocking indeed – is that cornerback Ike Taylor agreed to a whopping $4.25 million pay cut. Not a restructure, not a renegotiation, a PAY CUT. Ike is still a decent corner but everybody could plainly see his declining skills were not worth the $7 million due him. In a sign of good faith – and perhaps learning from James Harrison’s colossal blunder last year – Ike agreed to cut this year’s salary all the way down to $2.75 million in order to remain in Pittsburgh.

Wow, between Ike and LaMarr, who pegged Ike as the smart one?

The salary cap ramifications for these two moves goes like this. As of today, the Steelers are approximately $7 million under the cap. By designating Woodley a post June 1st cut, they will spread his cap hit over the next two seasons with him counting a little over $4 million this year (vs $13 if they kept him) and $8 million in dead money next year. So as of June, the Steelers will have an unheard of $15 million to play with in free agency.

Sure, a lot of top notch free agents will be off the board before then but bidding wars and “winning the off-season” by nabbing the big fish has never been their style. The team has a lot of holes and the salary cap relief will certainly give them a chance to address some of them with strategic mid-level signings. There are rumors they’ve been talking to CB Alterraun Verner, who would be a huge upgrade in the secondary if they could sign him. They definitely need to add a top three type receiver to play with Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, the only two wideouts currently signed for 2014.

Oddly enough, this looks to be a banner year for free agency with literally hundreds of players looking for jobs. Two areas that look to be especially deep are receiver and corner. Not only are Verner and Aqib Talib free agents but there are strong second tier options like Malcolm Jenkins and Vontae Davis. This doesn’t even touch the rumors that Darrelle Revis may soon be on the market. Receiving wise, there are a solid 35-40 veterans out there although I imagine the Steelers would like to re-sign Jerricho Cotchery all things being equal. If that falls through, there are dozens of options from aging stars like Lance Moore and Domenik Hixon to our old friend Santonio Holmes.

It was already shaping up to be an interesting off-season for the Steelers. With these two moves, that off-season just got a whole lot more interesting.

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