When it comes to athletes and aging, there comes a point in time at which the body simply no longer allows what the mind wills. It becomes a tricky proposition for both the player and the team for which he plays to take a gamble on continued productivity in the twilight years of one’s career, which is why veteran players often find it difficult to land substantial contracts in free agency—it’s very difficult to accurately predict a player’s decline, and often it is a precipitous drop off.
Which is what makes Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison’s prospects of returning for yet another year during his age-38 season all the more impressive; not simply that he may find a way to continue earning a pay check, but because he has continued to play not just at an acceptable level, but has played impressive football.
That is, I believe, the determination that the majority of casual and ardent observers might have enjoyed in watching his 2015 season, during which he logged the most snaps among the Steelers’ outside linebackers in a four-player platoon, in spite of the fact that he was by a significant margin the oldest of the group.
And he was also the most productive of the group, compiling 40 tackles, five sacks, four passes defensed, an interception, and two forced fumbles. That is a pretty solid stat line for a full slate of snaps, but when considering the rotation that he was a part of—and technically not the starter—it helps highlight just how well he played.
To further highlight that point, Pro Football Focus posted an article yesterday about Harrison’s 2015 season, arguing that, on a snap-by-snap basis, he remains among the league’s most productive defensive players at his position, which, of course, only strengthens the argument that the Steelers can’t afford to lose him just yet.
Harrison earned the site’s eighth-highest overall grade among 3-4 outside linebackers. You can take their grading with a grain of salt, to be sure, but I would at least trust them enough to identify when a 3-4 outside linebacker is playing reasonably well.
Within that framework was the seventh-highest cumulative pass-rushing grade within the position, on a top-10 list that included only three players over the age of 28. Considering the talent that we see around the league at the position these days, that is no small feat.
But according to PFF, he is not simply playing well relative to his age, nor toward his peers. By their years of data of grading, he is playing well relative to himself. Having begun tracking data since the 2007, which just so happens to be the year he entered the starting lineup, 2015 was Harrison’s fourth-highest-graded season of his career, behind 2007, 2008, and 2010. And his grade has been steadily trending upward the previous three seasons, although that can be easily accounted for circumstantially.
The former Defensive Player of the Year is evidently still in the process of determining whether or not his body can withstand the rigors of another NFL season while maintaining a high level of play, although that process seems to be going well. But the data is pretty clear that he has remained a strongly positive contributor as recently as a couple of months ago, which bodes well for his continued success in 2016.