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NFL News: Is Steelers OLB James Harrison the subject of unfair scrutiny?

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This week, we discuss the NFL’s drug testing policy, the Jets’ shameless tank job, and J.J. Watt’s place in the NFL

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Miami Dolphins at Pittsburgh Steelers Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

James Harrison is the oldest defensive player in the NFL. However, thanks to an absurdly-rigorous (and often unconventional) training regimen and presumably awesome genetics, the 39 year-old edge defender has remained notably productive long after his contemporaries have called it quits. Which is great for the Steelers, who have been unable to locate a surefire franchise pass rusher—although it is important to note that Bud Dupree’s dominant showing to conclude the 2016 season makes him a strong candidate to assume Harrison’s mantle—since, well...James Harrison.

Harrison made just seven starts in 2016, though he ultimately led Pittsburgh’s outside linebacker group in snaps. Naturally, this concerned the NFL, who administered six or seven “random” drug tests to Harrison last season, per him.

Pittsburgh’s all-time sack leader has experienced similar scrutiny this offseason, having received his third drug test since April on Tuesday. Unfortunately for Harrison, his days of peeing in plastic cups are far from over, as the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement permits the league to administer as many as six tests per player per offseason.

During the regular season, the league equips independent administrators with an algorithm that enables them to select test subjects at random. The NFL’s Policy on Performance-Enhancing Substances, which you can read here (I don’t recommend ever reading this, by the way, as it sucks and is boring), claims that test subjects in the offseason are tested on the same basis as they are in the regular season, but come on. Obviously Harrison is being scrutinized. The question then becomes a matter of determining the fairness of said scrutiny.

The short answer: yeah, this is fair. Harrison probably isn’t happy about it, sure, but when you are a 39 year-old position player who exhibits the functional strength to unroot a tree stump with your bare hands, the league is going to study your pee. Also, the NFL’s testing protocol is plainly outlined in the CBA. It sucks that Harrison and hundreds of other players are subjected to numerous drug tests throughout the season, but the league must remain vigilant in ensuring that the sport remains relatively PED-free.

With that said, it probably isn’t unfair to call the “randomness” of the selection program into question. Again, the NFL is absolutely operating within their own self-imposed guidelines by testing Harrison so frequently, but it would be nice to see some transparency.

Harrison’s production is understandably concerning, as only a select few defensive players have played well into their late 30s, much less anchored their respective units. If the league explicitly stated something along the lines of “James, you are not human, and we seriously need to test you more than anyone else,” Harrison and the rest of the league would nod with reluctant acceptance. Operating under this guise of unpredictability is fooling no one.

Systematically picking certain players to test is kind of off-the-books, by the way. The CBA says particular players can be singled out if “reasonable cause” dictates so, but this is primarily reserved for a) dudes who have tested positive in the past or b) when there is sufficient credible evidence that links a player to steroid involvement up to two years prior to his college draft. The latter category obviously is not applicable to Harrison, and although Harrison has been accused of using PEDs, he has never tested positive for any banned substances. So, unless there is some sub-category to the “reasonable cause” rationale, Harrison does not objectively qualify.

Expect Harrison to receive several additional tests this offseason, and even more when the regular season begins in September. “Random” tests, of course.

The Jets are shamelessly tanking

In a move that would make the Sacramento Kings beam with undeserved pride, the New York Jets are tanking their 2017 season. And this is a good thing.

The Jets released veteran linebacker David Harris and Pro Bowl receiver Eric Decker on Tuesday, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN. Neither move was particularly stunning—Harris is 33, which is like, 38ish in linebacker years, while Decker missed almost the entire 2016 season with a hip injury—but the departures of Decker and Harris mark just the latest installment in a roster overhaul that has already witnessed the losses of Brandon Marshall, Darrelle Revis and Nick Mangold, who have combined to make eight All-Pro teams and 20 Pro Bowls.

The Jets’ objectives are strikingly evident: increase their cap space, get younger and nab a bunch of high draft picks, including the no. 1 pick in 2018, which should net them USC’s Sam Darnold or another high-profile quarterback prospect.

Fans should buy into this tank job. Aside from Muhammad Wilkerson, Leonard Williams and Sheldon Richardson (the latter of whom is scheduled to hit free agency next March), the Jets don’t have a strong veteran presence anywhere on the roster. They drafted highly-touted safety Jamal Adams in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, but even if Adams instantly becomes the greatest defensive back in NFL history, it won’t be enough to transform the Jets into contenders.

No, the Jets need to be terrible this season, and probably next season, too, if they hope to stockpile enough talent (whether through the draft or free agency) to field a competitive team in the foreseeable future. In fact, I would argue that the worst possible outcome for the Jets this year would be a 6-10 or 7-9 season in which Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenburg look like serviceable quarterbacks. Teams overvalue serviceable. Every coach in the NFL thinks he can mold a serviceable quarterback into a winner. As a fan of Penn State football, I have fallen victim to Hackenburg’s charms. It will take him six wins, 3,000 or so yards and maybe like a 17:11 touchdown:interception ratio to make fans think “you know, maybe we DO have something in this kid!” I promise you this will happen. He has that effect. I implore the Jets to be smarter. For the health of their franchise, New York must be no better than 2-14 this year.

Teams assuredly have a duty to their cities and fanbases. When your foundation is filled with termites, wood rot and Josh McCown, sometimes tanking is a necessary evil.

Rankings!

NFL.com is in the midst of ranking their top 100 players of the 2017 season. J.J. Watt, who would likely make the Hall of Fame if he retired from the NFL tomorrow, was ranked 35th on this list.

Watt responded by calling the list “a joke” and implying that his ranking is too high since he missed the majority of last season with a back injury. Well, the joke is on you, J.J., because you are salty for all the wrong reasons, guy.

Let me explain. The NFL composes this list every year and ranks players in the upcoming season based on their performance during the prior season. So, if you were awesome in 2016, there is a strong chance that your ranking on the 2017 list will reflect this. However, the people who develop this list seem to place a pretty big premium on a player’s statistics over the course of a single season. To provide a more workable example, this is kind of like Madden giving Rob Gronkowski a lower rating than, say, Kyle Rudolph. Utter madness.

Watt is a three-time winner of the NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award. He is one of only two or three defensive players in the NFL who have a legitimate case for the league MVP Award. He is the only player in NFL history to post two 20-sack seasons. Watt underwent a pretty serious surgical procedure, yes, but he is only 28! It is criminal, at best, to rank Watt no. 35 on a list of the 100 best current players. He may very well be among the best 35 or 40 players of all time!

It’s cool and everything that J.J. took the #gritty “everything is earned, nothing is given” approach with his ranking, but let’s be honest, he knows EXACTLY where he belongs on that list.