Worth a Shot: James Harrison
There was a time when there weren’t many better players in the league than James Harrison. One of those rare talents who can contribute in every defensive facet of the game, he was the prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker.
He was comfortable in coverage, could set the edge in the run game (or just blow up blocks), and above else, was a fearsome pass rusher. Between 2008 and 2010 he would finish in the Top 3 of our outside linebacker rankings every year with only injury and playing time restrictions preventing him from following up on that in 2011.
But last year was something else. The explosive pass rusher was no more and the Steelers simply couldn’t justify spending as much of their cap room on him as they were. Not for a guy who managed just 28 combined sacks, hits, and hurries on 294 pass rushing attempts.
That doesn’t, however, mean he has nothing to offer. Indeed, with the 3-4 being in vogue and plenty of teams devoid of talent on the edge, Harrison should find a warm market if he’s prepared to be flexible.
Not the Player He Was
Anyone who watched Harrison last year saw a guy who looked a shadow of his former self. Whether it was down to injury or age, he just didn’t produce like we’d seen him do.
Year Pass Rushes QB Disruptions Pressure %
2008 434 65 14.98%
2009 366 59 16.12%
2010 476 79 16.60%
2011 253 43 17.00%
2012 294 28 9.52%
The table above shows a stark decline in his ability to generate pressure. From constantly being one of the league’s most productive pass rushers, he would only finish 19th out of 32 3-4 outside linebackers in our 2012 Pass Rushing Productivity rankings. A huge drop from placing in the Top 5 the four previous years.
Any team going after signing Harrison needs to ask themselves was this down to him battling injuries or him down to being a soon-to-be 35-year-old pass rusher? On the surface of how much Harrison has played since entering the league there should be something left in the tank. He only emerged as a starter in 2007 with his first five years in the league never seeing him play more than 31 percent of his team’s defensive snaps.
Nonetheless, his age will scare plenty of teams that 2012 wasn’t a down year, but rather an indication of what Harrison has become — yet even that should garner interest.
What He Can Still Do
Year Run Snaps Run Stops Run Stop %
2008 385 32 8.30%
2009 361 34 9.40%
2010 369 39 10.60%
2011 295 27 9.20%
2012 307 28 9.10%
You see, even if Harrison struggled getting past blockers to impact the quarterback, he was able to get off blocks in the run game to make plays around the line of scrimmage. His Run Stop Percentage is a big indication of this where he maintained a high score of 9.1 percent in 2012, third among all 3-4 outside linebackers. That helped him to the third-highest run defense grade of his peers, and saw him finish 10th overall in our 2012 rankings at his position.
In essence, the worst case scenario with Harrison is you’ve still got a player who can operate relatively productively on early downs. The upside being that his 2012 was an aberration and not the start of a trend.
That is why a lot of teams, perhaps focused on names like Paul Kruger and Cliff Avril, might be wiser to look at a cheaper and more proven pro like Harrison. Here are a few of them:
Way back when Chuck Pagano was in Baltimore he got to face Harrison twice a year. Sure Harrison wasn’t his problem but given how the former Steeler used to save some of his biggest games for the Ravens, I’d be surprised if he didn’t notice him.
What’s more, with the team moving on from Dwight Freeney there’s a need, and bringing in a player like Harrison would give Pagano the type of edge defender this defense is missing. Sure they tried to make Robert Mathis the Jarret Johnson of this defense, but the experiment was never going to work with Mathis just not an edge setting defender, instead being far best suited to getting up field. Signing Harrison allows them to upgrade two positions.
Are times changing in Arizona? They use to be the preferred destination of one-time Steelers when Ken Whisenhunt in town, but will former Steelers coordinator Bruce Arians follow suit? He could do worse than bringing in Harrison given what he’s got at the position currently.
In 2012 O’Brien Schofield, Sam Acho, and Quentin Groves all had chances to impress, with only Groves putting forth a case for a further look. Acho and Schofield would actually both finish with lower Pass Rushing Productivity scores than Harrison for the year while neither was nearly as effective as Harrison in the run game. He’d offer an upgrade, but has the time come for the Cardinals to stop looking at Steelers cast-offs?
Depending on what reports you’ve read, the Browns have varying degrees of interest in pretty much every would be free agent. That may be them being used as leverage or misdirecting teams as to their true attentions, but one thing that is known is that they need to get better production rushing the passer off the edge.
Juqua Parker led the team with 44 quarterback disruptions last year and he’s unlikely to be back as they switch to a 3-4 defense. That’s led many to believe they’ll make a move for Paul Kruger, but Harrison presents a cheaper option, and like Kruger comes with the added bonus of previously playing for a divisional rival.
Worth A Shot
Given the production some teams get out of their outside linebackers it should be a no-brainer that teams look at James Harrison. However his play in 2012 coupled with his age should make them acutely aware that he’s unlikely to recapture his one time dominance. A short-term deal with incentives seems the way to go, ensuring that no team finds themselves in the situation the Steelers were at the beginning of 2014.
Follow Khaled on Twitter: @PFF_Khaled