It’s tough to fault Pittsburgh Steelers fans for feeling cautiously optimistic upon hearing from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Gerry Dulac that Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert hadn't closed the door on a potential James Harrison return:
No, the soon-to-be 36-year-old won’t likely recapture the form that made him a star in Pittsburgh. Harrison piled up 60 sacks and 29 forced fumbles in his six seasons as a starter.
However, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect an improvement from his subpar 2013. Harrison was miscast in the Bengals’ 4-3 defensive alignment and, in turn, failed to frighten opposing quarterbacks like he had in years past.
So, then, what could the Steelers expect from their aging former star? Well, certainly not double-digit sacks, but some valuable qualities nonetheless.
The Steelers linebacker group was once considered the unequivocal best in the NFL. With James Farrior, Harrison, Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley (all Super Bowl XLIII starters) departing in the last few offseasons, that’s no longer the case.
Now the Steelers have been forced to rely on a largely unproven, youthful group. Last year’s first-rounder, Jarvis Jones, was thrust into the starting lineup and failed to meet expectations with just one sack.
Sixth-rounder Vince Williams saw more playing time than expected last year after Foote’s season-ending injury, but the team sometimes had to cover for his shortcomings by playing Troy Polamalu closer to the line of scrimmage.
Even Jason Worilds, last year’s breakout star, failed to impress in the three-plus seasons before his torrid stretch to close last year.
You can bet that if Harrison, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, were to join these guys in the locker room, they’d be all ears to any advice he could offer. After all, he was one of the more destructive forces in recent NFL history.
Depth is an issue for the Steelers at numerous positions. The worst situation in that regard, though, may be outside linebacker.
Behind Jones and Worilds, the Steelers have Chris Carter, Terence Garvin and Vic So’oto. Together they’ve accounted for 35 tackles and one sack through a combined seven NFL seasons.
Harrison, on the other hand, has plenty of success on his resume. And of course, he’s intimately familiar with Dick LeBeau’s complicated defensive scheme.
Jones and Worilds both missed at least a game last season, and if injury issues were to spring up again in ’14, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more capable fill-in than Harrison.
Age may have lessened his physical abilities, but there’s no concern that the well-known workout warrior won’t show up in peak condition. And though he didn’t light up Cincinnati as hoped, he still proved formidable setting the edge and even managed a splash play or two.
Exactly what teams prioritize in a key reserve.
And, perhaps, something more?
For a team firmly committed to getting younger, relying on a 36-year-old former All-Pro seems counterproductive. But if Harrison can manage a season with six sacks and two forced fumbles, as he did in his last year in Pittsburgh (2012) at age 34, there’s no reason not to let him on the field.
After all, who’s to say Jones makes the leap after a miserable rookie year? And what if Worilds regresses after locking up big money?
No, Harrison isn’t an ideal solution to either problem. But in the short term, he may be the best option should a situation necessitating major minutes for a backup arise.
Free-agent options are limited at the outside linebacker spot. The same goes for the draft, presuming the Steelers focus on more pressing needs (wide receiver, cornerback, defensive end) in the earlier rounds.
Not to mention any such additions would require time to learn the Steelers’ playbook. That concern simply isn’t there with Harrison.
Sure, it's entirely possible that Harrison's days are numbered and he'll be another veteran sadly playing past him prime. But are you ready to count out the man who spent the first several years of his career toiling on practice squads and even with the now-defunct Rhein Fire before exploding onto the scene in 2007?