The release of All-Pro linebacker James Harrison by the Pittsburgh Steelers comes as no surprise. Pittsburgh is not a team that will risk keeping a high priced player on its payroll who is advanced in years and Harrison is 34. One could say that the Steelers motto is to let a player go while they still have some ability rather than wait until they can’t play anymore.
Harrison joins a long list of Pittsburgh linebackers who finished their careers elsewhere. When free agency began in the early 1990’s, the Steelers let budding All-Pro inside linebacker Hardy Nickerson sign with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He was eventually followed by Chad Brown, Kevin Greene (whom Pittsburgh had signed as a free agent), Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland, Earl Holmes and Joey Porter to name a few. Every one of these men was replaced. Harrison replaced Porter. The Steelers believe that Jason Worilds is ready to replace Harrison and, along with Lamar Woodley, keep the beat going.
If there is one position in Pittsburgh that a player does not want to grow old at it is linebacker. Every off season general manager Kevin Colbert goes into the NFL draft looking to add at least one young linebacker to the roster. The Steelers run a base 3-4 defense where linebackers are the key. Whenever Pittsburgh has good ones, they win. Part of the reason for the Steelers struggles in 2012 were that they hardly ever had their projected starting linebacker core on the field. Harrison and Woodley missed considerable time which hurt the pass rush.
Pro football is a cruel game and injuries occur. A player like Harrison who plays a physical style of football and has to take on men usually larger than him is going to get banged up. Add double teams and you get more wear and tear. However, Pittsburgh wants to know that they can rely on players being on the field every game. They draft linebackers annually with the intent of having the next man available when change needs to be made. You can bet that the Steelers already have two or three linebackers on their draft board waiting to be selected in April.
Linebacker is a numbers position in Pittsburgh. It is the one position where they always want to have an abundance of talent. Those who can start will and those who can help the team are placed on special teams to develop as Harrison and Worilds were. The Steelers do not generate enough revenue to give veteran players high bonuses and keep them. If a veteran wants to stay in Pittsburgh, he will have to restructure his contract sooner or later.
There is no question that the Steelers believe Harrison can still play and they would have liked to have kept him. However, when it comes to finances, Pittsburgh is always going to do what is best for the team.
Because of this, decisions like releasing Harrison come as no surprise.