The lines in the sand are being drawn deeper and the time to make a decision draws ever near—the Pittsburgh Steelers have a major choice to make when it comes to the future of linebacker James Harrison.
For nearly a month, it's been clear that the Steelers would like Harrison to take a pay cut this year in order to help out the team's salary-cap situation and to put his salary more in line with his talents and contributions. Harrison will be turning 35 soon, and though he has multiple Pro Bowls in his history as well as a Defensive Player of the Year nod, he's simply not the same fearsome pass-rusher he was at the height of his talents.
With the start of the league year just a few days away—it kicks off Tuesday, March 12—it appears that the Steelers and Harrison have gotten nowhere in negotiations. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette reported Thursday that while both sides have continued talking, "neither side has found anything to their liking" when it comes to putting together a new deal that carries with it a pay cut.
If no agreement is made by 4 p.m. on Tuesday, it looks like that could be the end of Harrison's 10-year career in Pittsburgh.
Harrison is set to make $6.57 million in 2013 and $7.575 million in 2014, the final two years of his current deal, and with bonuses included, he represents a $10.035 million salary cap hit for the Steelers this year.
A series of restructures last week with linebacker Lawrence Timmons, wide receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger helped the Steelers get below the $123 million 2013 salary cap, but not enough to re-sign any of their own free agents (with cornerback Keenan Lewis the highest priority in a group of 24). Harrison's pay cut is a crucial one, but he and his agent, Bill Parise, don't think he's given the team any reason to reduce his salary.
Though Parise says that he and Harrison "absolutely want to be in Pittsburgh," it's starting to look less and less likely. And so the Steelers will have to find another solution at outside linebacker this year.
Their first two options are already on the roster. Jason Worilds and Chris Carter split time at right outside linebacker in the first three games of the 2012 season while Harrison continued to rehab from a nagging knee injury that required minor surgery in the preseason. Worilds, who had more overall playing time than Carter in 2012 (435 total snaps compared to 104 for Carter) seems to have the greatest chance to take over for Harrison.
Last season, Worilds had a total of four quarterback sacks, four hits and eight hurries, as well as 13 defensive stops. One of those sacks and two of those stops came in the three games he was helping fill in for Harrison on the right.
However, Carter could have an advantage—not by looking at his 2012 playing time, but at the fact that he was named the starter for those three games that Harrison missed.
It doesn't advance the cause too much when looking at his numbers over that span—no quarterback pressures at all and just one defensive stop—but with Worilds being a linebacking jack-of-all-trades (he also took over for LaMarr Woodley on the left when he dealt with injuries later in the season and spent most of the year splitting snaps with him) and Carter a specialist on the right side, it cannot be ruled out.
There's also the draft to consider as well. Whether or not Carter or Worilds would get Harrison's job should Harrison be released next week, the Steelers will need to add pass-rushing talent in April. Harrison's release would mean one less linebacker in their reserves, and Woodley's repeated injury issues also mean that added depth is practically a necessity this year.
Depending on the Steelers' confidence level in Carter or Worilds, a new pass-rusher could be as high as a first-round priority in this year's draft. From top-level talent like Ziggy Ansah to Dion Jordan on down, the Steelers could start taking serious looks at this year's outside linebacker prospects and decide to go that route early on.
There are, however, a lot of quality pass-rushers in this year's draft, which could push the pick into the second round. Auburn's Corey Lemonier or Stanford's Chase Thomas could be among their targets with their 48th-overall pick.
Changes are nothing new to the Steelers, with salary cap concerns forcing their hands in 2012 and leading to the release of veterans like Hines Ward and James Farrior. And the news over the past month has only served to soften the blow of Harrison's eventual release, should it come to that. It will be a blow—Harrison may not be the kind of vocal leader like the Baltimore Ravens just lost in Ray Lewis, but his very presence on the field makes Pittsburgh's defense that much more intimidating.
Ultimately, the NFL is a business and Harrison appears headed to be a casualty of that fact. The key is for the Steelers to hold their ground and not let their stubbornness with him become a liability when it comes to their ability to effectively pressure quarterbacks and scare opposing offenses.