On Friday, the Cincinnati Bengals finally reached an agreement with veteran free-agent linebacker James Harrison on a two-year deal. The sides had been negotiating in earnest for more than a week, but the approaching NFL draft sped up the process and they were finally able to get the deal done.
Harrison's signing brings with it two very immediate benefits to the Bengals' linebacking corps: depth and experience. As the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy pointed out, prior to the Harrison signing, the Bengals linebackers' average years of experience was just 2.6, and five of their nine linebackers had two or fewer years in the NFL.
Harrison is 34—he'll turn 35 in early May—and has been in the league for 11 seasons. While the age (combined with the payday) is what got Harrison released from the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he had been for the entirety of his active career, in Cincinnati, it's looked at as an asset.
On the field, however, it may become an issue. According to both Reedy and Bengals.com's Geoff Hobson, Harrison will step in to become the Bengals' starting strong-side, or SAM, linebacker—a role he hasn't ever played.
SAM linebackers are responsible for run-stopping and coverage duties, in contrast to Harrison's job in Pittsburgh as a rush outside linebacker, who brings pressure to quarterbacks and also works against the run.
Last year's primary starting SAM linebacker in Cincinnati, Manny Lawson, played 398 total snaps (subscription required)—227 against the run, 138 in coverage and just 33 as a pass-rusher. Harrison, contrastingly, had 837 snaps as a 3-4 outside linebacker last year, with 338 coming against the run, 189 in coverage and a whopping 310 against the pass rush.
Though Harrison's run defense duties won't be particularly different, the fact that he'll be dropping back in coverage far more often is a bit concerning. Harrison, after all, is older and is coming off of a knee surgery that saw him miss the beginning part of 2012. Though it's repaired, he's not as fast as he once was, which could make him a coverage liability for the Bengals this season—much like Ray Lewis was for the Ravens last year.
In Harrison's minimal coverage snaps last year, he didn't give up a single touchdown. However, he did allow 11 of the 16 passes thrown in his direction to be caught, for 112 yards and 72 yards after the catch. If those coverage snaps are doubled or tripled, it might become an issue.
The switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 outside linebacker doesn't mean that Harrison won't be used as a pass-rusher. In fact, his skill in this area—six sacks last season and 64 over the course of his career—actually serves as an upgrade over Lawson (who is now a Buffalo Bill) and the rest of their linebackers.
Ideally, the Bengals won't have to rely on Harrison as their starter for the full two years of his deal. He'll likely start this year, while the rest of their young linebacking corps continues to learn the ropes of the position and, if he sticks around in 2014, will likely then move to a more situational or support role on their defense.
For one year, though, Harrison isn't a bad choice to help out the Bengals' sometimes-struggling group of linebackers. His problems in coverage can be masked by other members of the defense, but he should provide a more reliable option in both run defense and the pass rush than, say, Dontay Moch.
The experience factor cannot be discounted, either. Where he was once old in Pittsburgh—where a number of other defenders are approaching or are above 30 years old—in Cincinnati, he's a proven veteran whose time isn't yet up.
It was a good signing for the Bengals, who got a former Defensive Player of the Year for a low price, and a good situation for Harrison, who can flex some leadership muscle. Though the switch in position and, therefore, assignments, should take a bit of transition for Harrison, it's one he should handle. As long as his coverage skills and his health hold up, there's no harm in the signing.
Even better for both the Bengals and Harrison? The two games the Bengals play against the Steelers in 2013 both come in prime time—a perfect stage for Harrison to exact a bit of revenge against his former team and get a few hits on a quarterback he's never once been able to sack. That alone makes this signing pretty exciting.
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