Steelers Should Have Franchised Taylor, Not Woodley

In previous offseasons, the Steelers’ decision to place their franchise tag on 26-year-old, star outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley would have been a no-brainer. After all, a young stud in his prime who tends to play his best in the postseason like Woodley would undoubtedly command a huge payday as an unrestricted free agent.

But this is not a normal offseason and the Steelers may have badly misread the labor strife by franchising Woodley and not veteran cornerback Ike Taylor, possibly destroying their Super Bowl hopes for next season in the process. Now it appears that Woodley would never have had an opportunity to be an unrestricted free agent this year, while Taylor is going to be among the most coveted players who could be granted immediate, unrestricted free agency by the court system in the next couple months.

As everyone knows, the NFLPA has decertified and NFL owners have locked out their players. The battle now goes to court and most legal experts believe the players will win the next round, ending the owners’ lockout. However, that would mean the NFL will continue under its existing rules from the 2010 season, and teams will have the right to retain their fourth- and fifth-year players by merely issuing one-year tenders, like the Steelers recently did with offensive tackles Willie Colon and Tony Hills, tight end Matt Spaeth and cornerback William Gay, all of whom would have been unrestricted free agents under the old system.

But veterans who have accrued six years or more of continuous service with one franchise whose contracts have expired will likely become free agents after the next court ruling. For the Steelers this means that Taylor, offensive linemen Jonathan Scott and Trai Essex, running back Mewelde Moore and linebacker Keyaron Fox, as well as defensive linemen Chris Hoke and Nick Eason, could become unrestricted free agents this offseason. Scott had been previously released and changed teams three times, meaning that the Steelers cannot retain his rights by issuing a tender despite his five total years of NFL service.

Moreover, teams will still be able to designate the franchise tag on one player at a time. Unfortunately, though, there will also be no salary cap for the 2011 season unless a new CBA is reached beforehand, meaning that free-spending owners like the Redskins’ Dan Snyder will be able to lavish veteran free agents with huge contracts.

For example, the Redskins signed then-unrestricted free agent corner DeAngelo Hall to a $55 million contract after the 2008 season, and that was after the volatile Hall was coming off a subpar season and there was a salary cap in place. The Redskins could theoretically now offer Taylor $45 million over four years, including a $15 million signing bonus and a $15 million salary for 2011 when the team may not be restricted by a salary cap, which will almost certainly be part of the next CBA – whenever that is reached. The Steelers could not financially match such an offer.

Of course the ramifications of this labor strife remain highly speculative and in flux. A CBA could be reached in the summer that opens up unrestricted free agency for fourth- and fifth-year players which was part of the last CBA before a provision kicked in that prohibited those players from being UFAs since a new CBA had not been agreed upon. But most expect the franchise tag to remain in any new CBA, although teams may not be able to use it on the same player in consecutive seasons.

But the later a CBA is reached, the less likely the owners are to agree to letting a huge group of fourth- and fifth-year players become unrestricted free agents before the 2011 season. And, at this point, there appears to be a good chance that a 2011 season would be played without a CBA under 2010 rules if the lockout is lifted by a federal judge.

That means that all the Steelers had to do to essentially retain Woodley was give him the highest one-year tender, which would have significantly raised his salary from roughly $550,000 in 2010 to $3.5 million in 2011.

The Jets gave the same one-year tenders to stars Antonio Cromartie and Santonio Holmes, both of whom would have been unrestricted free agents as fifth-year players in previous offseasons and this is just another of the many reasons why it was dumb for the Steelers to give away Holmes for a fifth-round pick last year as a PR move.

By issuing a one-year tender, the Steelers then would have had the right to match any offer Woodley would receive as a restricted free agent, or receive first- and third-round draft picks from the team that signs Woodley as compensation.

Instead, they then could have placed the franchise tag on Taylor – who will be 31 before a potential 2011 season – assuring that their No. 1 cornerback will be on the roster next fall. Without Taylor, no sane Pittsburgh fan would predict this team a Super Bowl contender with Bryant McFadden and Gay as its top cornerbacks, which would probably be the worst starting duo in the NFL.

Now, hopefully Taylor will return to the Steelers, whom he obviously wants to play. But do not expect him to pass up a more lucrative offer from another team to do so if the contract differences are pronounced.

Woodley is obviously a happy man, since he made $550,000 last year but quickly signed a franchise tag contract that will guarantee him more than $10 million this fall if football is played. When a CBA is reached, he is likely to sign a long-term deal with the Steelers.

But an aging Steelers roster primed for at least one more Super Bowl run in 2011 may have that goal prematurely end due to neglecting Taylor. The cornerback position that was most responsible for the team losing Super Bowl XLV to the Packers will drop from a mediocre corps that is the one weakness of the league’s best defense to an atrocious unit that becomes the demise of a once-very-good football team.

Pray that the Steelers can re-sign Taylor, because the prospects of quarterbacks like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning – both of whom are on Pittsburgh’s regular-season schedule for 2011 – facing the Steelers’ secondary without him would be nightmarish.

Almost every decent NFL quarterback who gets adequate pass protection would light up the Steelers’ secondary. And it is not that Taylor is a shutodwn corner in the Darelle Revis mold. He is good but not great. But Taylor is the only Pittsburgh corner who can actually cover top NFL receivers.

If Taylor is retained, the Steelers’ front office looks astute by locking up their best young defender for the long-term in Woodley and the team will remain an AFC Super Bowl favorite. Plus, while less likely, a CBA could still be reached in the next few months that opens the floodgates for free agency that would lower Taylor’s market value (due to an influx of fourth- and fifth-year players) and make franchising Woodley again look like a no-brainer. Less likely: the players could lose in a court, and there will be no free agency or football until a new CBA is reached because the owner’ lockout will remain in effect.

But if football is played under 2010 rules with no new CBA in place, Pittsburgh may well lose Taylor to free agency. That would  make franchising Woodley instead of Taylor a potential front-office blunder that could mark the end of the Steelers’ highly successful mini-dynasty from 2004-2010.

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  • Dr Obvious

    “Now it appears that Woodley would never have had an opportunity to be an unrestricted free agent this year”

    Hind sight is 20/20.

    • Ted

      That is true, and in the Steelers’ defense, many folks were saying for the first time all year that a new deal seemed likely when we did place the franchise tag on him. But in hindsight, it may have been a bad move. Let’s hope it works out where we keep both Woodley for long-term and Ike for at least the next two years somehow.

  • Cols714

    Get a grip. Woodley is the better player going forward. And I’m tired of hearing about how bad the Steelers secondary is. It’s not that bad, they were either 1st or 2nd in pass defense last year. Sure Brady and Rodgers had good games vs them, but it’s Brady and Rodgers!

    Maybe Taylor will sign and maybe he won’t. I’m betting he will as he won’t see that much money from other teams. Even if he doesn’t, the Steelers will just draft a CB and continue doing what they’ve been doing for the past 18 years, or so.

    And, FYI, the CB position was not responsible for the Steelers losing the Super Bowl. Try 3 offensive turnovers, one that led directly to a TD and a very good opposing QB in Rodgers. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t upgrade CB, just that their secondary is not as bad as we think it is. It’s a far cry from Dewayne Washington, Chad Scott, and Lee Flowers.

    • Ted

      First, I never talked about the best player going forward. Of course that is Woodley, but we likely did not need to franchise him to keep him if you actually read and were able to comprehend the article; the latter of which seems regularly difficult for someone at your level.

      Second, you need to get a grip on reality (try getting off Prozac), because you are the only Steeler fan I know ignorant enough to believe we would be okay at CB if Ike left next year. Our pass defense ranked 12th last year in the NFL per Google is your friend.

      And Scott and Washington were a far superior CB tandem than BMac and Gay would be. Heck, Washington was a highly-coveted FA. The Steelers, in contrast, gave Gay their lowest tender last year and any team could have signed him by just giving the Steelers a fifth-round pick. None made an offer. Likewise, McFadden was statistically one of the worst CBs in the NFL in 2009 and the Cardinals gave him back to us, along with a 6th-round pick, for a late fifth-round pick. No one else made them an offer and no one else values McFadden or Gay.

      Our defense last year would have been one of the best in NFL history with remotely decent No. 2 and No. 3 corners. Scott and Washington had a below-average d-line, while our front three last year included a Pro Bowler in Hampton, a Pro Bowl alternate in Keisel, Smith played at Pro Bowl level before injury, and Hood was above-average afterward. Our d-line sucked for the four years Scott and Washington started together and the LBs then were below-average based on the lofty Steelers’ standard, since Lloyd was post-injury and no longer a Pro Bowler who was soon to leave, K Greene was gone. We had some great players like Kirkland and Gildon, but also had average starters like Emmons and Holmes. In contrast, all four of our current starting LBs are stars by almost every standard. Moreover, we had the NFL defensive POY at SS, but we had to waste him sitting in two-deep cover-two zone for the entire SB, because our corners (besides Ike) can’t cover in man. Why don’t you just not read my blogs, since you regularly fail to grasp their simplicity.

      • MasterOfObvious

        This is what’s called an overreaction.

        • GlennW

          Not to mention a personal attack. Ted, you’ve crossed the line here (in my opinion).

          • Randy Steele

            Yikes! I thought I had just logged onto by mistake.

      • Cols714

        According to Football Outsiders, we ranked #2 against the pass and #1 against the run in defense. But you can keep going to your old school stats if you’d like. But just like you know more than the Steelers scouts about who to draft based on YouTube clips, you probably know more than FO does about what makes a good defense.

        And please, reading comprehension? Really?

      • Bob Costas

        “Why don’t you just not read my blogs”

        If you insist.

  • Mike L

    I believe the Steeler organization promised Woodley a long term deal or he would be given the franchise tag. They honor their words. This is why players respect this franchise, why they are so often in the playoffs, and players regret leaving in free agency. Could they lose Taylor? Yes. Could he stay because of what the Steelers stand for? Yes. I don’t believe you can lowball a player and expect him to resign with you when he can become a FA, that would be what the Steelers would have been doing to Woodley.
    Again you bring up Holmes after being repeatedly asked by others to let it go. Look at the FACTS Holmes was suspended by the team for one game after getting caught with drugs- he went into the drug testing NFL program- he tested positive and was suspended for 4 games. Goodbye. That is how the Steelers work. Don’t like it, find another organization. Ben is on his first suspension, he was almost gone too. If he screws up again, Goodbye. Stop trying to make a repeat offender seem like a scapegoat.

    • Ted

      You make some good points, but we sure were missing Holmes on that last drive in the Super Bowl, eh? If he plays in that game, I have full confidence Ben emulates 43, since Wallace is not double-teamed on every play. I will never let that go. Just an idiotic move. And there are plenty of examples where the Steelers did not say “goodbye” so quickly to players who broke their rules (e.g., Ernie Holmes, Haserlig, Duval Love, etc.). It was not that simple with Holmes, and none of us know what really happened. But many of us believe it was no coincidence that we quickly traded him right before the DA announcement in Ga the next day as a PR move. I will believe that till I die.

      As for low-balling Woodley, you place a franchise tag on him when he actually is eligible for FA and he will have to give you a good discount to sign a long-term deal. We got a steal on Hampton (3 yrs., 21 mill) because he had no other options after we tagged him. But you are correct in that if he became an UFA somehow this year, it would cost us a boatload to sign him and are also correct that we would have loved to give him a big contract (and have said so), but have been and are still prohibited from doing so due to no new CBA.

      • Kyle

        The comparison between a mentally unstable Ernie Holmes and an habitual weedhead – or even the comparison to Love or Haselrig – is silly. As Mike L said, and as I’ve said many times: he got busted for weed, the team told him if it happened again he was gone, it happened again, he was gone. And the suggestion that it was a PR move BEFORE the DA announcement doesn’t make sense. If the DA comes out and says he’s charging BR with sexual assault and who knows what else then they’ve just traded their top receiver and will likely lose their starting quarterback to either the justice system or something much more serious than a 4 to 6 game suspension. If they had traded Holmes after that, maybe your conspiracy theory would hold water. The fact is, he broke their rules, they gave him a second chance, he broke the same rule again. I don’t remember Ernie Holmes shooting anymore cops and Haselrig ended up with the Jets too, so maybe he’s not the best example for you.

        • GlennW

          > And the suggestion that it was a PR move BEFORE the DA announcement doesn’t make sense.

          Yes, this part of the Holmes debate really does make little sense, although it was the typical knee-jerk response in some media circles. To believe that Holmes was traded away primarily in response to the Roethlisberger situation is to believe that 1) the Steelers are really terrible at public relations (because such a ploy didn’t work– if anything it was questioned and therefore backfired), and 2) Mike Tomlin was somehow brainwashed by the big boys upstairs, as every indication was that he supported the decision as the head coach of the football team.

          Better to just stick with the rationale (if you didn’t like the move, that is) of “the Steelers acted too rashly to the situation and didn’t receive adequate value in return”. I don’t particularly believe that (I think Holmes’ trade value was vastly overstated, in a league where damaged goods are routinely sold off at 25 cents on the dollar), but at least it’s marginally defensible.

          I continue though to lose no sleep over Santonio Holmes no longer wearing the uniform of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

          • EasyLikeSundayMorning

            I do think that Ben’s situation was a main reason they rushed to trade Santonio. They would have probably traded him anyway but the fact that they took an offer so quickly with little or no negotiation seemed related to Ben. Or maybe they really hate pot, as they cut Gary Russell in about 2 microseconds after they heard about his incident.

            I don’t really care that they rushed to trade Santonio. Waiting to trade him wouldn’t have gotten much more than a 5th rounder anyway. The one that perplexed me more (and annoyed me at the time) was cutting Joey Porter and getting nothing for him.

          • Anonymous

            I seem to recall them cutting Bam Morris pretty quickly too.

  • GlennW

    I think Ted’s analysis here is reasonable, and we’ll just have to wait for it to play out to see if he’s right or not. I personally think that our CBs/nickels are indeed mediocre and the unit’s ranking would reflect that if its play could somehow be quantitatively measured if abstracted from the other defensive components. And perhaps more pertinently, I’d like to beat Brady/Rodgers, not just be good enough to qualify to be ripped up by them. Yeah, I know you can’t necessarily have everything, but regarding the specific matter of Ike’s status you also don’t want to be lessened in the area of your most obvious weakness.

    As for Woodley and the RFA business, maybe the best assumption really was to presume that the status quo would end up being retained for 2011. I don’t know; we’ll see. I don’t particularly care for Ted’s use of loaded, apocalyptic hypotheticals like “destroyed Super Bowl hopes” and “front office blunder that could mark the end of a mini-dynasty” etc., but hey, that’s his style. Filter out the rhetoric and he’s still posing a legitimate question.

  • Cols714

    Maybe he has a point. The problem is that he didn’t write this before the Steelers’ franchised Woodley. So it’s all 2nd guessing which is fun and all, but it’s 2nd guessing while also saying stupid things like destroying Super Bowl hopes. Which makes him sound just like an SCI message boarder clamoring for Matt Kranchick to start.

    • GlennW

      Second-guessing is the lifeblood of sports (or political, economic, almost any) analysis. I don’t have a problem with that much. It’s the merit of the second-guess that is fair game for debate. In any case, I don’t even consider this an opinion registered in hindsight, because Ike hasn’t gone anywhere yet, Woodley hasn’t registered another sack, and the Steelers haven’t won or lost another game yet (much less been “destroyed” etc.). Rather this was a bitch-please session registered pretty much in real time, where Ted has ample future opportunity to be embarrassed by it… ;-)