By Jeremy Hritz
The discussion regarding the future of Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is escalating. This past week, Harrison’s agent, Bill Parise, made it known to the media that his client was not interested in taking a pay cut in order to stay with the Steelers, igniting much discussion of whether or not retaining Harrison for 2013 was in the best interest of the Steelers. In today’s Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, both Ed Bouchette and Ron Cook both assert that the Steelers should bring Harrison back for another season.
What decision should the Steelers make regarding Harrison for next year? Before drawing a conclusion, take a moment to consider Harrison’s career statistics:
Harrison’s most productive years occurred between 2007 and 2010 before injuries caused a decline in performance in 2011 and 2012. However, in 2011, Harrison only played in 11 games and still recorded nine sacks, and it has to be considered the type of season he would have had statistically if he would have started five more games. While Harrison had more tackles in 2012 than he did in 2011, his sacks declined, despite playing in two more games than he did a year before. Yet the knee injury that limited him in training camp and that kept him out of the starting lineup until the Philadelphia game stunted his production early on. He did rebound, as he finished the season with five sacks in the last seven games.
Harrison admitted during the season that he was struggling to return to 100% health, and this is the key area that will ultimately determine his future with the team. Are Harrison’s injuries behind him and can he get healthy enough to compete at a high level for 16 games and the post season? If he can, there is no reason to believe that he cannot put up numbers that rival his production from 2007 to 2010. Unfortunately, his knee and back issues are causes for skepticism. So if the Steelers do decide to keep Harrison on board, it will demonstrate that they have confidence in his ability to stay healthy.
If the Steelers do decide to keep Harrison, it will influence the direction that they go in this year’s NFL Draft, as using an early pick on an outside linebacker will not be necessary, and it will enable the team to address their offensive ineptness at the skill positions. And realistically, there is not an outside linebacker that the Steelers can take in this draft that can come in and start right away.
The other key piece to consider here is Jason Worilds, whom could influence the Harrison decision. Worilds has had three years to develop, and last season, his play improved. If the Steelers feel he is ready to assume a starting role, then Harrison’s fate is sealed. If they do go with Worilds and cut Harrison though, depth at outside linebacker will suffer, and there will not be much experience at the position. If Harrison stays, Worilds can be afforded one more year to develop and grow into the Steelers defense.
Sadly, the greatest factor influencing the decision on Harrison will be money, as the Steelers simply do not have the cap space to bring him back at his current numbers. This issue will have to be resolved in order to keep him in the black and gold in 2013.
While cutting Harrison may make sense from a financial standpoint, from a production standpoint, it does not. A healthy Silverback next year could rejuvenate the Steelers defense and lead a return to the playoffs.