Just a day after contemplating his future on social media, James Harrison agreed yesterday to terms on a two-year, $2.75 million contract to remain with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The deal includes a $500,000 signing bonus, which is an insignificant amount in terms of dead money in the likely event that this becomes a one-year agreement.
Despite the fact that the Steelers had no intentions of signing him last season, going so far as to enter the regular season with only three outside linebackers, Harrison gradually became one of the team’s best defenders by the end of the year.
He was initially signed following the Week Three wrist injury suffered by starting right outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, and for the next several weeks, he worked along with Arthur Moats, the latter as the starter, in a rotation.
Harrison’s proportion of the snaps slowly increased until finally the Steelers made the change to put Harrison in with the starters first. Even after he missed two games due to injury, he resumed his place in the starting lineup, which he held for so many years earlier in his career.
Despite only playing about 450 snaps during the regular season, playing in 11 games and starting the last few, Harrison still managed to record 45 tackles and 5.5 sacks, to go along with a quarterback hit that led to an interception. One of his sacks also assisted a fumble forced by Troy Polamalu.
But it’s still not clear where that leaves him within the mix in 2015. The landscape is different. He is a year older, in a bad way. Jones is a year older, in a good way. Jason Worilds is no longer there, yet general manager Kevin Colbert believes that Moats is probably in the starting lineup, while adding that he doesn’t believe there are any plans to move Harrison.
Even his agent told reporters that Harrison is being brought back in a reserve role. But he was brought back in a reserve role in the middle of the season last year without even being in shape, and he played more than many anticipated the next week before ultimately climbing into the starting lineup.
Harrison is the type of player who doesn’t come off the field easily—even if you tell him to come off the field. It would make little sense to question the possibility of him supplanting either Jones or Moats for a starting spot at some point this season, whether it comes on opening day or later in the year.
But the Steelers do need to be smart with the veteran, who will turn 37 in May. Like Brett Keisel last season, they may hesitate to put him in the starting lineup, despite giving him more snaps, in order to help preserve his body for the long haul.
No doubt that will be the prescription for this offseason, largely allowing Harrison to guide his own preparation as much as allowed in the CBA, while providing mentorship for the young linebackers around him. No matter what happens in terms of his playing time, however, the outside linebacker position looks much better now than it did two days ago, even if it doesn’t wipe the position off the draft board.