Steelers outside linebacker Jason Worilds probably played himself out of reasonable range for the Steelers to afford. Or maybe it's more appropriate to say he'll command on the market more than the Steelers are willing to pay for Worilds after his 7.5 sack 2014 season.
Fortunately, the Steelers are prepared for the least desirable of a lot of tough situations they faced when they gave Worilds the team's transition tag in the 2014 offseason. If Worilds had a monster season, they wouldn't be able to afford him but at least they would have a year of a dominant outside linebacker - something they haven't had over 16 games in four seasons. If he imploded, they would have to carry his salary through the year but that would be the end of it.
His middling campaign gave them a bit of both. Some production - he wasn't a bad player in 2014 - but not enough to drag his work-in-progress defense through tougher stretches of the season. He cost a large amount of money that could have been used to roll over into 2015. It was a gamble the team had to take, however, with a lack of depth at the outside linebacker position.
They'll most likely move on from Worilds. Their back-up plan is similar to what they had when this team rolled game-ready outside linebackers off their practice-hardened assembly line. They'll give far less money to the back-up and work to build that player up.
This year, it's Arthur Moats.
Moats finished seventh in the NFL in pass rushing productivity - a stat measured by Pro Football Focus combining sacks, hurries and hits - among 3-4 outside linebackers who played 104 or more snaps. The team committed the money to Worilds (he finished 24th in this stat), and with James Harrison playing well (he finished fifth), Moats wasn't called on frequently, but he made an impact when he was.
Moats signed a one-year deal with the team this past offseason and heads into free agency, but the Steelers have both the need and very likely the desire to keep Moats around in 2015. He played well within the system, suggesting he's not capable of asking for a Worilds-level deal, and he would easily enter minicamp as the team's starter.
While both he and Jarvis Jones, the team's first round pick in 2013, played primarily on the defensive right side, it's not as if either have played long enough on one side to say they can only be there. Signing Moats would give them the flexibility to cover two starting positions, and use the draft as well as their own roster (remember Howard Jones?) to find depth.
If his price tag is right, the Steelers may be looking at the first group of outside linebackers lacking one player with a cap charge of over $5 million, the first time that's happened since the 2008 season. The Steelers' priority in the offseason is usually to sign their internal free agents before testing the outside market. They strayed from that a bit in 2014, looking to bolster depth while younger players worked themselves into roles for the future. With Dan McCullers likely giving the Steelers reason to show Cam Thomas the door, and Stephon Tuitt taking over for Brett Keisel, the pieces in the defensive front seven are falling into place. The key is the outside linebacker starting spots, and Moats is an excellent fit for Pittsburgh, both from a production standpoint as well as a financial one.