As I noted in Monday's rundown of AFC North links, Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review tweeted over the weekend that Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison could leave the team after this season wraps, something Dave Bryan at Steelers Depot thinks makes a lot of sense.
I agree with Bryan about this. Though Harrison has remained productive, even despite nagging back injuries and subsequent surgeries, knees that are a bit worse for the wear and last season's broken orbital bone, the 34-year-old is quite the cap hit in 2013.
Bryan breaks it down in his article: Harrison's projected cap allowance for next season is around $13.035 million, with a base salary of $6.570 million, a signing bonus of $3.465 million and a $3 million incentive, which is likely a roster bonus.
With the cap projected to remain at the $120 million it was this year, and the Steelers apparently owing their players around $133 million, it looks like another round of veteran roster cuts are in the team's future, and Harrison could be a cap casualty.
What could save Harrison is another strong season. Though he missed five games last season, he still notched nine sacks and 59 tackles; if he can stay healthy through all 16 games, it's quite possible that he makes enough of an impact that releasing him would be a mistake the Steelers don't want to consider making.
However, with their cap issues, something will need to be done.
Harrison may be willing to restructure, considering his career is coming to a close, even if this isn't his final season. According to Bryan, if that $3 million incentive is indeed a roster bonus, the Steelers would save $8.105 million by releasing Harrison. Voluntarily lowering this number may indeed save Harrison's job.
The bottom line is that the Steelers need to start thinking about the future of their entire team now.
Though they've done work to get younger this offseason, releasing a number of veterans including James Farrior and Hines Ward, there are other, older players on the roster who will soon be past their prime, owed too much money and need replacing. That includes Harrison.
They need to either decrease his 2013 price tag or cut him and move on, unless he proves himself invaluable in the upcoming season.
It's a hard move, but the NFL is, deep down, a business. Releasing Harrison next spring doesn't diminish any of the contributions that he's made to the Steelers in his now-nine seasons—it's just merely reflective of the situation they're going to find themselves in next year.
Now's the time to truly test out Jason Worilds as Harrison's ultimate replacement, because there are very real reasons to believe Harrison may not be a Steeler next season.