OLB James Harrison is turning 38 in May. Despite his age, he continues to play elite-level football for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harrison has a year left on his contract, but after Sunday's playoff loss to the Denver Broncos, he expressed doubts about his future in the sport, explaining via the Post-Gazette, "It is a little tougher for me because I'm in a situation where I'm a little uncertain about what I'm going to do. I can't say that was my final game right now, I wouldn't be comfortable saying that. I'm 37 years old, I'll be 38. It's not as easy as I would hope."
While Harrison's words are far from a retirement announcement, they also cast doubt on his intention to play out his final year with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the organization that welcomed him back after his brief stint with the Cincinnati Bengals and benefited from his top-level fitness, keen football savvy, and wise leadership.
Harrison had a bigger impact this season than initially expected. Before the regular season started, coach Joey Porter said that Harrison would have a rather limited role, perhaps not seeing more than 25 snaps per game. Instead, Harrison saw 611 snaps this season, playing 50 snaps during the Steelers victory against the Arizona Cardinals and 67 against the Cleveland Browns in the final week of the regular season. His statistics included five sacks, three of which were against the Indianapolis Colts. He had 15 tackles in his two games against Baltimore. Clearly, despite his age and Porter's predictions, Harrison was a key to the Steelers success on defense this year, even beyond intangibles like leadership skills and inspiration to younger players.
Would a premature departure change the Steelers strategy in the 2016 draft and free agency? The Steelers defense is a young crew, still rebuilding after the departure of key players Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor, and other core members in previous years.
Even if Harrison does return, 2016 could be the year his on-field presence really is limited to 25 snaps. Harrison has found the fountain of football youth, but at 38, he will be in the winter of his career. The Steelers used their first-round draft pick in 2015 to select OLB Bud Dupree, who had an impressive season after underwhelming fans and observers in the preseason. OLB Jarvis Jones did not have a phenomenal season, but he looked a lot more like a first round draft pick than he did in his previous seasons with the Steelers.
The Steelers have other, more pressing needs to address in the 2016 draft, but they might attempt to pick up linebacker talent in free agency if Harrison does decide to retire. After the heartbreaking loss to Denver, however, Harrison is likely speaking from a place of sadness and discouragement. Once the sting of the loss wears off, it is hard to imagine a 2016 Steelers squad without him. His work ethic, drive, determination, and commitment to the team will likely lead him to finish out his contract.