James Harrison has been one of the best defensive players in the league over the past six seasons, but as he approaches his 35th birthday, the Pittsburgh Steelers face a tough decision on whether or not they will keep the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
With an already aging defense, having to depend on Harrison to be one of their biggest playmakers is a risk that may not be worth taking.
Some will argue that Harrison is not a typical 34-year-old linebacker considering he has started only six seasons worth of football games. For most players with his talent, this would put them at 28 or 29 years old.
But even with the lack of games played, Harrison still has a 34-year-old body after not being 100 percent over the past two seasons with both back and knee injuries. And while the injuries have slowed Harrison down, he still remains one of their most productive linebackers.
Over the past two seasons, Harrison had 129 tackles, 15 sacks and four forced fumbles.
By comparison, LaMarr Woodley had 77 tackles, 13 sacks, one forced fumble and two interceptions over that same time period. Harrison’s potential replacement Jason Worilds had 64 tackles, eight sacks and a forced fumble in 10 starts and 28 games played.
Worilds is the main player of concern here, as he was drafted as the eventual replacement for Harrison, but after three seasons, he has not earned the trust of the coaching staff. If he had, there would be no question to Harrison’s status with the team—he would be released.
The concern over Worilds’ ability to be a full-time starter is legitimate.
While Worilds flashed potential in his limited time last season, he did not demonstrate that he could be the all-around outside linebacker that the Steelers need.
Worilds had five sacks in three starts, but he needs plenty of work dropping into coverage and is still fairly weak against the run.
Harrison—even coming off of a knee injury that caused him to miss the first three weeks of the season—was much better than Worilds. He was also better than Chris Carter, who can’t even seem to find the field.
Though Harrison can no longer get the leverage against the tackles that he used two and has lost some power, he is still a dangerous pass-rusher and can get around the edge for backside pursuit in the run game.
As Harrison got healthier and back into game shape, his game improved.
Over the final seven weeks of the season, Harrison looked more like his old self with five sacks and two forced fumbles. His agent, Bill Parise, took notice of this as well (via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
“I don't think anybody would argue at the end of the season that James Harrison was the best linebacker the Steelers had,” said Parise.
Now with a full offseason to get healthy, the Steelers may be able to squeeze out one more quality season from Harrison. But if they are going to stick with him for one more year, they are going to have to do something about his cap hit.
Harrison’s contract has him earning $6.57 million this season and $7.57 million in 2014.
Harrison and the Steelers will either have to reach an agreement on a pay cut, a restructure or a contract extension. Whatever it is, they must reduce his cap hit.
The early indications were that Harrison would not consider a reduction in salary (via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review).
“Can we help the Steelers by restructuring James' contract? We're certainly willing to do that. Do we need to take less money? I don't think so. Personally, I think he's a bargain,” said Parise.
But that stance seems to have softened a bit as Harrison and his agent appear to be ready to work toward a deal with the Steelers (via the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).
"We're talking," Parise said. "Both sides want to try to do something. We're trying to find common ground."
Common ground would be the best solution for both sides, but negotiations have not gone smoothly so far, and Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that if a deal is not reached by next week, Harrison could be released by next Tuesday.
The Steelers do not have a player ready to step in with not only the pass rushing capabilities of Harrison, but also the ability to defend the run.
By keeping Harrison around for one more season, they will have a player who can still make big plays from the outside linebacker position and can look to the draft to find a starter for the future.
Losing Harrison would not doom the season for the Steelers, but they are a better team with him in the lineup. And as long as a deal can be worked out, the Steelers need to keep their best outside linebacker in town for at least another season.