Why James Harrison is still one of NFL’s most productive OLBs

James Harrison will be 38 before the 2016 season kicks off—Chase Howell explains why his value is still high for Pittsburgh.

| 6 months ago
Pittsburgh Steelers OLB James Harrison

(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Why James Harrison is still one of NFL’s most productive OLBs


If you haven’t been following Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison on Instagram this offseason, know this—the man is a beast in the weight room. Whether decline-benching 365 pounds (five reps, mind you) or hip-pressing 528, the 37-year-old is making one thing clear—he’s prepping his body to be in “game-shape” come the 2016 season.

It’s one thing to impress in the weight room, at Harrison’s age, but translating that strength to the field is another. Harrison will be 38 in May, making him the second-oldest active player in the NFL that isn’t a kicker/punter (Tom Brady will be 39 in August). At such a physically demanding position, it’s fair for the Pittsburgh front office—and Harrison himself—to question whether or not it’s time for one of the league’s most feared defenders of the past decade to hang up the helmet for good.

While it would be understandable for Harrison to call it quits before the season kicks off—there’s no wrong time to consider life after football—his on-field production tells a story of a player who still has gas in the tank heading into the final year of his contract.

In the 2015 season, Harrison earned the eighth-highest overall grade among 3-4 OLBs. What’s more, he earned the seventh-best cumulative pass-rushing grade among his positional peers.

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The former undrafted free agent played just 714 snaps last season, the third-fewest since PFF began grading games in 2007 (played less than 500 snaps in 2013 season Cincinnati, 2014 return to Pittsburgh). Still, it was his fourth-highest-graded season of his PFF-era career.

[Editor’s note: When looking at the chart below, keep in mind that 0.0 is considered “average” on PFF’s cumulative grading scale—Harrison hasn’t recorded a negatively graded season, or close to it, since 2007.]

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While it’s obvious that Harrison is still effective when on the field—in fact, he’s earned consistently higher grades the past three seasons—another key reason for postponing retirement is the Steelers’ need for the veteran presence. Bud Dupree—Pittsburgh’s first-round pick from the 2015 draft—didn’t adjust well to life in the NFL, earning the worst grade among all 3-4 OLBs last season (by a wide margin). Only Green Bay’s Mike Neal earned a lower cumulative pass-rush grade at the position.

Arthur Moats—a 2010 fourth-round pick by the Bills—provided some sense of a pass-rush from the position in 2015, with the 30th-best cumulative pass-rush grade in the league. It seems clear, though, that Dupree is seen as the future in this role for Pittsburgh, logging the second-most snaps there in 2015 (behind Harrison), despite his negative performance.

This practice is a rarity within the Pittsburgh organization, as the franchise has a history of slowly increasing the snap-count of rookies over the span of a few seasons before moving them into a major role, despite poor on-field production from veteran starters in front of them (think Cameron Heyward behind Ziggy Hood, for example).

It makes sense for Pittsburgh to harbor hope for the former Kentucky product—Dupree finished the 2014 college season with the sixth-best overall grade among FBS 3-4 outside linebackers—though a closer look at his collegiate success reveals that his pressure numbers may have been inflated due to below-average opponents (see PFF founder Neil Hornsby’s observation prior to the 2014 draft).

Harrison’s return would allow Dupree more time to develop before carrying the weight of being the team’s top OLB—if he can reach that level of play—while still putting a proven defensive contributor on the field for a large portion of snaps.

While Harrison continues to create a social buzz with his offseason workouts, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the veteran returns for his 14th NFL season. Given his production of late, the Steelers’ defense would benefit greatly from his continued presence.


| General Editor

Chase is a General Editor at PFF, focusing on the site’s NFL content strategy. His work has been featured in ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider, and The Cincinnati Enquirer.

  • James Winslow

    I am going to guess steroids.

    • http://www.chris-garman.com SteelByDesign
      • James Winslow

        Still going to guess steroid , its probably jarvis jone’s piss lol.

        • LostAlone

          You’re an idiot. His career has lasted this long because he’s been very fortunate in regard to injuries, he’s worked out incredibly hard and he’s a talented guy who knows his position well. Brady is the same thing. If either of those guys got an injury like Manning did they wouldn’t be playing. It’s nothing to do with steroids.

          • James Winslow

            I think all players dope, its the only way they last this long in the league. Lets be honest here.

          • shaunhan murray

            It couldn’t be the MASSIVE improvement of our knowledge of the human body

          • James Winslow

            Well he is very massive, I wonder how he does it?

          • Phillip Dssturk Dobrensky

            Just watch his work out videos and your balls would probably fall off.

          • James Winslow
          • Antonio Montana

            It’s called hard work, moron. All you have to do is check the man’s instagram account. He’s been a hard worker his entire career. The guy doesn’t have an off season or vacation time, he’s always out in Arizona preparing for the next season! Maybe you should look into the man before making accusations.

          • James Winslow

            All NFL players work hard man, the due dopes like every one else.

          • randy parker

            Sounds like you know an awful lot about doping.

          • David Gibson

            One thing we all know is that steroids allow you to work out harder and more often. So, arguing that someone’s extra effort in the gym is evidence that they aren’t doping is ignorant.

          • randy parker

            Arguing someone is using steroids without evidence is ignorant

          • David Gibson

            Of course. I was careful not to do that.

          • BG

            I beg you to find a player that works as hard in the weight room as Silverback! Some people just have “the edge”. As mentioned above, drug testing is done throughout the year and Harrison is likely tested often. HGH and other PED’s stay in the body too long to “schedule” usage around tests especially when a lot of them are random. He was undrafted and the poster boy of the statement “Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard”. That statement is not to say Harrison is not talented now and since he has become a starter in the NFL, but if you understand the adversity he was up against coming out of Kent State and being cut several times as an UDFA you can understand the work it took to get where he is today. That work ethic has drove and currently is driving his results today. Its very easy for a “never will be” to make general statements like you have, but you probably have no idea what that kind of hard work can get you!!

          • James Winslow
          • BG

            Look a little deeper, the so called “Pharmacist” named Sly goes on in further articles to say that his statements and the Al Jazeera report were “made up” to quote a recent article. Thats why you don’t hear anything about this anymore as we saw in MLB. Only uninformed people like yourself mention this. Do you honestly think if this or anything like this were real it would be kept such a secrete and “under the rug”!! Are you kidding me, it would be front page news. Deflategate would be an after thought!!!! It’s because the “story” is BS!!

          • James Winslow

            After peyton sent his “lawyers” in and bullied him into taking it back. And yes it would be pushed under the rug peyton is the NFL golden boy. https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/2016/02/05/peyton-manning-lawyers-investigated-jazeera-documentary/622W18iT1N6Fgzi6LeR01I/story.html

          • BG

            Absolutely NOT, Brady is the “Golden Boy” and they tried to bury him!!! Look at all the MLB players that got crushed! In today’s sports world nothing gets buried unless its not credible period!

          • James Winslow

            No its because it is Peyton, he is the NFL. Also steroids aren’t frowned upon as much as they are in baseball.

          • BG

            Its a BS fictitious “story”. Now back to the baseline discussion….James Silverback/Deebo Harrison is a beast and much respect should be given to his work ethic and drive towards his craft. As he always says, he will never be out worked! He is a grat example of how you should strive for success in the world today!

          • James Winslow

            Still not buying that he doesn’t dope.

          • BG

            Nope, you wouldn’t understand! I will no longer dignify your comments with answers.

          • James Winslow

            cool

          • Conserv_58

            I’m still not buying that you typed this given how breath takingly stupid and ignorant you are.

          • James Winslow

            Lol you are stupid. YOu honestly to think its stretch to believe in sport where you have to big as possible somebody would not use steroids (especially at age 37). Grow a brain, and some balls.

          • Conserv_58

            You’re too stupid for your own good.

          • Conserv_58

            You are referencing an article from a tabloid publication with zero credibility or journalistic integrity. The same goes for your referencing a completely fabricated story from Al Jezeera, a muslim propaganda outlet.

            You are an example of what’s wrong with this country. You’re grossly uneducated, ill informed and gullible. You read fabricated lies in articles from discredited publications with nefarious political agendas and you believe them.

          • James Winslow

            No its true, there is a reason why peyton manning sent his lawyers directly to the guys house, and he the guy was afraid they were cops. Manning was going to bury them.

          • Antonio Montana

            You’re an idiot. That clearly went over your head, or your willfully being ignorant. Either way, have a good day sir!

          • Conserv_58

            Your a knuckle dragging idiot. You can not back up your lie with factual evidence.

            FYI, Not all NFL players have James’ work ethic, his dedication, commitment, self discipline, or his gruling regimen. Even his own teammates have said that when it comes to working out, James is in a league of his own. Even the young LB’s who went to workout with James last off season admitted that they can not keep up with him.

          • Conserv_58

            You can’t be serious.

            Watch his workout videos and learn what it takes to achieve what he does.

          • James Winslow

            Yeah the reason he lift that much at age 37, is because he dopes. I think his work videos are proof if anything

          • Mister Wirez

            Wow. You’re a REAL narrow minded, know-it-all, kind of azzhole.
            Good job junior…

            P.S. Trolling rival team articles via moms basement is not an actual career choice. Grow up.

          • James Winslow

            Lol sucking your boyfriends cock while getting buttfucked by james harrison is not a healthy lifestyle. Stop making your mom cry son, you don’t have to be James Harrison’s bitch lol.

          • shaunhan murray

            Ur 1 of those people who believe all amazing athletes r juicing,right? Including Lebron JJ Watt and Dwight Howard

          • James Winslow

            He appeared on a report, and based on his age its more likely than not.

          • shaunhan murray

            Actually NO he is less likely to be doping than not, simply because he has NEVER tested positive and most NFL players dont dope

          • James Winslow

            Most NFL players don’t dope, don’t kid yourself. James Harrison is just one of many.

          • shaunhan murray

            Ok phrased weirdly, Silverback not doping that’s the point

          • James Winslow

            He is though lol.

          • shaunhan murray

            I didn’t realize we got an NFL Insider/Harrison’s trainer here this so cool…. whats ur favorite color?

          • James Winslow

            Lol what kind of comment is that? Are you high?

          • shaunhan murray

            I was annoyed

          • Conserv_58

            Your too stupid to know how stupid you are.

            You are only speculating on a topic that is derived from your making an uneducated and ill informed comment. You have no irrefutable and factual evidence to prove any of the brain dead nonsense that you are spewing.

        • Applebite

          Harrison is what one would call “Prison ripped” He stays in the gym, keeping his body in condition. When you consider how he came into the league undrafted, then you figure how he was bounced around for a bit, he made the decision along the way to make sure he was in shape, that his conditioning would never be the reason for his own failures on the field.

          When you been in the league this long, and as strong as Harrison is, you know the league is looking for anything to nail you for. Ask LaRon Landry how that’s working out for him.

          • Conserv_58

            James’ physical fitness, or perceived lack thereof, was not the reason why he couldn’t make the ravens’ or the Steelers’ rosters. James himself admitted that it was because he was too stubborn and hard headed to learn what it took to stay with a team. He was deemed, uncoachable.

            As fate would have it, Steelers OLB, Clark Haggans hurt his hand lifting weights in the off season and given how close the Steelers were to training camp they needed another OLB and signed, James Harrison whom was sitting home hoping his phone would ring. Thus began James’ close relationship with coach LeBeau. James credits coach LeBeau for saving his career.

        • Kim Canney

          Why bother talking to an ass–you can’t reason with one. If you know so much, why don’t you do something about it instead of flapping your useless mouth.

          • James Winslow

            Well he did appear on the same report as peyton manning, I think I’m just saying the truth.

          • Conserv_58

            So what? Nothing ever became of those bogus reports because they were found to be completely devoid of facts and truth.

            FYI, Those reports came directly from Al Jezeera, a muslim propaganda outlet.

        • thomas hmmmm

          After being Goodell’s PE #1 for all those years you really think he somehow cheated all those drug tests?

          • James Winslow

            Nah I just think he’s smart about it, you do it all in the off season

          • thomas hmmmm

            They get tested year round. Just not as frequently as during the season.

          • James Winslow

            They can avoid it if they are smart, they are generally aware on the days they get tested.

          • Conserv_58

            More nonsense. No they can’t. The league’s testing proceedures are very thorough and they can detect masking agents. There is no getting around or avoiding the tests. It’s ignorance on your part to think that the league isn’t aware of the fact that players will attempt to cheat the system.

          • Conserv_58

            That’s just plain ignorance talking. It’s patently ridiculous to say that, especially given James’ well publicized workouts.

    • Conserv_58

      That is a ridiculously ignorant statement. James does not use steroids. He does use league approved supplements.

  • Anthony

    What an incredible player man… Few players love football more than James Harrison, I hope he plays great into his 40s. Coming from a Raiders fan.

    • Izach

      100% agree Harrison is a great player shame we got rid of him that one year and bengals played him out of position.

      • Anthony

        Cincinatti has 2 players just like him, in terms of mentality, Vontaze Burfict and Paul Dawson.

      • Conserv_58

        The Steelers did not get rid of him. They made James a contract offer that was above market value for a veteran player. James and his agent foolishly refused the offer because they were delusional in thinking that he was worth that of a top five OLB in his twenties. As it turned out, the free agency signing period came and went and James’ phone never rang. Teams shied away from him because of his advanced age. It wasn’t untill just before the start of training camps that the bungals signed him to a one year contract, for the same amount the Steelers offered him.

        There is no doubt that James and his agent were stubbornly unrealistic about his value and ended up with egg on their faces for refusing to re-sign with the Steelers. James could have accepted the Steelers offer, if it wasn’t for his stubborn pride. IMO, James was too embarrassed and too stubborn to admit that he made a huge tactical error, hence the reason why he took Cinci’s offer.

        • Izach

          Actually they did get rid of him, he was already under contract, they asked him to take a pay cut, something he had no obligation to do, and in reality steelers “should” have honored.

          His previous 2 years with us have actually been top 10 for OLBs so they pay cut back then was in warranted and based on injury not his play,

          But Then they cut him anyways costing dead money they didn’t need to take on, and out of spite not offering him a veteran minimum like hey did with kiesel and other veterans hey had pervious cut.

          Also he didn’t wait till training camp the bengals jumped at the opportunity to sign Harrison.

          it wasn’t until after they played him as a 4-3 DE and made him gain 30lbs that he decided to retire

          and again it was after that season without him the steelers realized they needed him again and signed him out of retirement.

          And now he is going to be in his 3rd season of upper level 3-4 OLB play still and getting paid as a lower tier option, steelers make out like bandits.