Veteran pass rusher James Harrison barely played this season, suiting up in just five games and playing 40 snaps for the 12-3 Pittsburgh Steelers, before being released Saturday. In any normal circumstance, it would be reasonable to assume Harrison is past his prime and doesn’t have enough left in the tank for a playoff team to take a flier on the 39-year-old outside linebacker.
The New England Patriots, who need to beat the New York Jets in Week 17 to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC, don’t face normal circumstances, which probably is one of the reasons they reportedly are signing Harrison on Tuesday.
Among players who could play a similar role to Harrison in the Patriots’ defense, Dont’a Hightower, Shea McClellin, Harvey Langi and Keionta Davis are on season-ending reserve lists. Kyle Van Noy, who took over the Patriots’ hybrid-edge role once all of those players were injured, is dealing with a lingering calf injury himself. That has left the Patriots with Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Eric Lee, Geneo Grissom, Marquis Flowers and Trevor Reilly as their edge defenders in recent weeks.
Trey Flowers is one of the Patriots’ best defenders, but Wise and Lee are first-year players, Grissom and Reilly both have spent time on the Patriots’ practice squad this summer, and Marquis Flowers is a career special-teamer who wasn’t expected to even play defensive snaps this season. He began the year as an inside linebacker.
So, if there’s any team in playoff contention who can use Harrison, pretty much regardless of what he has left in the tank, it’s New England.
The Patriots have struggled to consistently get after the passer this season, but the area they perhaps can use Harrison most would be setting the edge against the run. Lee has struggled as a run defender on the edge. Cassius Marsh similarly labored before he was cut midseason and claimed by the San Francisco 49ers.
There’s also a reason Harrison was buried on the Steelers’ depth chart. Above him were Bud Dupree, a 2015 first-round pick, T.J. Watt, a 2017 first-round pick, and Anthony Chickillo, who’s 25 and started seven games last season.
Harrison was pretty productive when he was on the field in a limited fashion this season, however. He had four total pressures — one sack, one QB hit and two hurries — in 17 pass rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. His “pass rush productivity” ranks third among all edge defenders, regardless of snap count, this season. Obviously that’s in a very small sample size.
Harrison did lead the Steelers with five sacks last season, however. He also led Steelers edge defenders in pass rush productivity in 2016 with 36 total pressures in 231 pass-rush snaps.
There’s clearly a reason why Harrison hasn’t played much this season. But there’s something to be said for the five-time Pro Bowl selection having fresh legs after playing what essentially amounts to one game in the past 16 weeks.
It’s at least worth seeing if Harrison has any juice left in what’s a low-risk move for the Patriots. And it wouldn’t hurt to have his extensive knowledge of the Steelers’ defense in the building if the Patriots play Pittsburgh in the AFC Championship Game.