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.