Yesterday, two days after the 2016 NFL Draft had concluded, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison confirmed what was largely considered to be inevitable, which is that he would be returning for a 14th NFL season, during which he will be playing at the age of 38.
That will make him the seventh-oldest active player in the league—and five of the six players who are older are all kickers, punters, or long snappers, with the lone exception being, of course, quarterback Tom Brady of the Patriots, whom Harrison will have an opportunity to sack, for perhaps one final time, this season.
In fact, there are only four other players in the league who are within a year of Harrison’s age, and two of them are special teams players as well. Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Vikings cornerback Terence Newman are both 37. Newman will turn 38 in September, while Brees will not turn 38 until January. Harrison turns 38 tomorrow.
Of course, to him, age his just a number, and there are more important numbers to him, such as the number of reps he does in the gym, or the number of sacks that he has, or, most especially, the number of championship rings he was a part of. The count is at two; no doubt he would like to get it up to three.
And no doubt he will be an asset on the Steelers journey this season, with the end goal in mind to raise the Lombardi trophy once again. It has been eight seasons ago now since the team last won it all, and six since they have been in the Super Bowl. Their loss in the Divisonal round last season is the closest they have come to getting back there.
And Harrison is still the closest thing that the Steelers have to a premium pass rusher on the roster, which is why his likely final season is vital to their ambitions in 2016. They recently declined to pick up the fifth-year option on fourth-year outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, which is a strong indicator that they do not believe him to be the answer.
Of course, former first-round pick Bud Dupree is merely entering his second season, but we have yet to see anything more than glimpses of what the defense will need him to become in order to boast a truly championship-worthy unit.
It is telling that Harrison not only led the outside linebacker group in sacks, but also in snaps, in spite of the fact that he missed a game. conversely, Jones saw the least number of snaps, even when factoring in the fact that he, too, missed a game.
If Dupree’s potential as the premium pass rusher that their defense needs to excel still lurks in some hypothetical future, and Jones’ already seemingly functions as a distant memory of a hopeful past, then it is up to Harrison to be that person for the Steelers in the present, even if it is on a lesser workload. But even that—lessening his snaps—remains as theoretical as it was last season. they will use him if they need him.