With Market Sparse, Could James Harrison Return to the Pittsburgh Steelers?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVMarch 18, 2013

If James Harrison realizes the money isn't going to come in, would he return to Pittsburgh on a reduced salary?
If James Harrison realizes the money isn't going to come in, would he return to Pittsburgh on a reduced salary?Joe Sargent/Getty Images

When the Pittsburgh Steelers released veteran linebacker James Harrison earlier this month, it was a result of Harrison's camp's unwillingness to accept a pay cut. He was due a base salary of $6.75 million in 2013 and over $7 million in 2014, and he had a total cap hit this year of around $10 million. 

For a 10-year veteran on a cash-strapped team, that was simply too much money for the Steelers to pay him. But ego—or the whispers of his agent, Bill Parise—kept Harrison from taking a lowered pay day that converted much of his guaranteed money into incentives, and the Steelers had no choice but to part ways and move on. 

According to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Harrison has spoken to seven teams since his release, including the rival Baltimore Ravens, but he has yet to schedule any visits, let alone sign a new contract.

Sports Illustrated's Peter King said in his "Monday Morning Quarterback" column this week that Harrison's name is the "coldest" on the free-agent market, according to the league sources he's spoken with at the league meetings in Phoenix.

He believes that to land anywhere, Harrison would have to take an offer worth at least half of what the Steelers wanted him to take to stay. King adds that Harrison would have been better off taking the Steelers' deal rather than test a market in which he and Parise have clearly overvalued him. 

Considering this overwhelming lack of interest in Harrison and the Steelers' predilection for bringing back their own former players—including cornerback William Gay, tight end Matt Spaeth, wide receiver Plaxico Burress and linebacker Larry Foote, who are all current Steelers after once being former Steelers—it's quite possible he could be back in Pittsburgh for the 2013 season.

Though Harrison is nearly 35 years old and not the player he once was, it wasn't his age or his declining skills that convinced the Steelers that releasing him was the right option.

Clearly, they played a part—if he was performing on the same level as he used to, with double-digit sacks and triple-digit tackles, he would have been worth the money—but they were still willing to keep him and pay him, just not that nearly $7 million in base salary.

It wasn't an outright cut but a move in response to Harrison's and Parise's unwillingness to reduce his overall cost to the franchise; no unwillingness, no release. So if Harrison is truly committed to playing in the NFL this season, he could realistically end up taking that lower-cost deal from the Steelers should they want to offer it, especially if the market proves that he has no other options.

Though the Steelers have Harrison's heir apparent currently on their roster—that would be Jason Worilds—as well as another capable, versatile linebacker in Chris Carter, not to mention a perfectly-placed 17th-overall draft pick that would allow them to bring on yet another talented pass-rusher, depth is always welcome at linebacker for Pittsburgh. 

A lower payday for Harrison would also mean the Steelers aren't forced to make him their starter this year if they wanted the Worilds era to begin in earnest. He could be a rotational player and hopefully the Steelers would get the most of his limited snaps. 

It would be quite the admission of overestimating the market if Harrison ends up returning to Pittsburgh at a highly reduced salary later on, but stranger things have happened.

With the Steelers proving themselves more than willing to re-sign their former players and Harrison needing somewhere to work this season, if he's still on the market just before or just after the upcoming draft, it might be the perfect solution for both parties.