Steelers 2014 Roster Projections: Outside linebackers

Vincent Pugliese

Is Jason Worilds the guy who might replace LaMarr Woodley - assuming he's even going anywhere? Or is it the guy the Steelers took in the first round last year?

The Pittsburgh Steelers have 21 players who will be unrestricted free agents when their currents contracts expire March 21, so management has quite a few decisions to make before the roster is set.

Here is a position-by-position look at the current players and what could occur during the upcoming months. This 11th story looks at the outside linebackers.

PITTSBURGH -- There are a lot of big questions surrounding the Steelers outside linebackers this year with "big'' being the operative word.

That's big as in seven-year veteran LaMarr Woodley, and big as in his inflated contract signed in 2011. Woodley has been a liability since playing at a level among the best defenders in the NFL just past the midpoint in the 2011 season. To that point, Woodley was a bargain for the six-year, $61.5 million contract he signed that summer during training camp.

Woodley started 47 games from 2008-2010 and recorded 35 total sacks with 12 pass breakups, three interceptions with one returned for a touchdown and six forced fumbles. He was quite a playmaker. That's why the Steelers believed that Woodley, the club's second-round pick during Mike Tomlin's initial season as the head coach, deserved big money through four NFL seasons.

The deal contained $22.5 million guaranteed with a $13 million signing bonus. There was a first-year option bonus at $4.4 million and his base salary that year. It was renegotiated to provide the Steelers with cap space, and Woodley received an additional $5.4 million as a signing bonus in 2013. The agreement appeared to pay off huge dividends in 2011, as Woodley had nine sacks to rank among the league's best pass-rushers through 10 games. Then, the injury bug bit Woodley hard and has continued to nibble on him for three seasons.

Injuries to both hamstrings during the 2011-12 seasons and both calves in 2013 caused Woodley to have difficult staying in shape and miss 14 games. With just nine total sacks in 2012-13, Woodley's productivity has dropped dramatically, so the Steelers need to determine whether they should drop him as well. He is scheduled to make $8 million this season, $8.5 million in 2015 and $9 million in 2016 before becoming an unrestricted free agent in 2017.

With Jason Worilds set to break out in his fifth NFL season as an unrestricted free agent and second-year pro Jarvis Jones -- the 2013 No. 1 pick -- looking to make a dramatic jump in his production, Woodley could be expendable. Some believe that Woodley would be productive if he remains healthy, "if'' is a big word. Worilds started 11 games last season and had a team-high eight sacks, two forced fumbles and 43 solo tackles. He finally stayed healthy as well and made some plays, which could net him a big payday this year.

Then, there's Jones. He was the first outside linebacker to start as a rookie, and he had some struggles. But there were flashes and with extensive conditioning work to increase his strength and video work to improve his game, Jones can be an impact player this year and make Woodley expendable in the process. It would be beneficial for the Steelers to have three solid outside linebackers and keep Woodley, but with the money Worilds is expected to make it appears that Woodley has to be released.

Jones is in the second season of his rookie contract and set to make $800,705 this year, $1,196,410 in 2015 and $1,592,115 in 2016. The Steelers have the option on Jones in 2017, and then he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2018. So, he's not going anywhere except up in his career.

The other veteran outside linebacker is Chris Carter. He will make $645,000 this year and be a free agent in 2015. Jamaal Westerman was on the roster last year, but he is a free agent this year and unlikely to return or he already would have been signed to a reserve-future contract.

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