Player: James Harrison
Position: Outside Linebacker
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2016 Salary Cap Hit: $1,500,000
2016 Season Breakdown:
It’s hard to oversell just how well James Harrison played for the Steelers in 2016 given the circumstances. What he did at the age of 38 shouldn’t really be possible when you consider the hypothetical level of competition that is available throughout the league.
In a game in which the average career only spans three or four seasons, Harrison has long been the outlier, and only continues to further himself from the norm. An undrafted free agent initially, he was released several times in his first few seasons, and even played in the European league before finally catching on in 2004.
He ascended to the height of the sport, becoming Defensive Player of the Year, and is still playing at a high level eight seasons after that 2008 performance. But that isn’t exactly how the season started, as the Steelers were looking to get Jarvis Jones to solidify himself as a starter.
As the season progressed, Harrison began to chip away more and more into Jones’ playing time before he took on the top spot in the rotation, and soon after he was logging every snap. And he continued to be productive, notching seven and a half sacks during the year including the playoffs while adding some turnovers to the list of accolades.
The veteran authored some big plays throughout the year, including the forced fumble that helped seal the early-season victory over the Bengals, the strip sack against the Dolphins in a losing effort, and then the settling-effect strip sack against the Dolphins in the playoffs.
He played so well, and apparently felt so good throughout it all, that his thoughts on the future changed. There was a point at which it seemed obvious that it would be his last season, but that evolved over the course of the season, and now it seems assured that he will return at 39.
Free Agency Outlook:
It’s hard to imagine Harrison signing elsewhere at this point, but it’s not completely impossible now that he seems reasonably committed to continuing to play this year. Of course, the overwhelmingly likely outcome is that the Steelers re-sign him and he finishes off his career with the team for one more year.
The question will be whether or not they can continue to get him at a relative bargain, considering that he only counted a million and a half against the salary cap last year. He will no doubt be entering the season knowing that he will play a bigger role than was believed when he first signed his last contract, and he has only gotten better over the last two years.