After 10 seasons with the team, the Pittsburgh Steelers cut ties with outside linebacker James Harrison in a salary cap move to avoid paying him $6.57 million for the 2013 season. The move came one day after the two sides reportedly met in an attempt to re-work his contract so that he could finish his career with the Steelers; however, no deal was made.
Harrison, 34, was elected to five consecutive Pro Bowls between 2007 and 2011, and was named the 2008 AP Defensive Player of the Year, accumulating 54 sacks during the five-year span. However, he fell off that double-digit average in 2012, finishing the year with only six sacks.
That drop in pass-rushing ability, combined with his age, makes Harrison a risky free agent to go after. However, Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus says that his run-stopping ability is still up to par:
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.
It's unlikely that Harrison gets more than a year or two on a new contract with a team, but prototypical 3-4 outside linebackers that can make an instant impact in the starting lineup aren't easy to find. Several teams have a need at the position, particularly those that have made recent switches to the 3-4 defense.
The Cleveland Browns are one team that is expected to switch to that scheme in 2013. While the team is in prime position to take a pass rusher like Dion Jordan or Barkevious Mingo with the sixth pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, it can ease that transition for a rookie with a player like Harrison.
Another team making the switch to a 3-4 is the New Orleans Saints, which has holes all over its defense. While the Saints don't have the cap space to go after a top pass-rushing free agent like Cliff Avril or Paul Kruger, they could afford to bring Harrison as a stop-gap in the starting defense.