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.
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.]
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.