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Harris: Cheaper to keep Steelers' Harrison

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 12:07 a.m.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison plays against the Browns Nov. 26, 2012 at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Steelers linebacker James Harrison is willing to restructure his contract. Smart man.

Harrison won't take a pay cut, however, and that stubborn streak could make him an ex-Steeler.

Harrison is scheduled to earn $6.57 million in 2013 and $7.57 million in '14. That's a big salary-cap number for a pass-rusher who turns 35 in May, is coming off knee surgery a year ago and is two years removed from two back surgeries.

Harrison may be banged up, but it's shortsighted to label him old. He's better than most of the young linebackers on the roster, who can't beat him out. He's still good when he isn't playing every down, but the Steelers aren't paying him all that money to be a part-time player.

Which brings us back where we started. Are the Steelers better off with Harrison on their payroll, even in a more limited role, at a fraction of his salary? Yes, they are. To believe otherwise is delusional.

Who on the Steelers' roster is better than Harrison at right outside linebacker? Jason Worilds? He's 10 years younger than Harrison, but an even bigger injury risk. Chris Carter? No, not the Cris Carter who just made the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a wide receiver.

“I don't think anybody would argue at the end of the season that James Harrison was the best linebacker the Steelers had,” said agent Bill Parise, who represents Harrison.

Parise is paid handsomely to say nice things about his client. Harrison wasn't the Steelers best linebacker in 2012 — Lawrence Timmons was. But Harrison was productive. In 13 games, he recorded 70 tackles and six sacks.

What concerns the Steelers are the three games Harrison missed while recovering from knee surgery. When he returned, Harrison wasn't the same explosive force from four years ago, and the Steelers must decide whether to pay Harrison his full salary this year and next, restructure his contract to create a lower cap number, or release him.

So let's take emotion out of what the Steelers should do regarding Harrison. The front office has to make a cold-blooded business decision, just as it did with Pro Bowl standouts Alan Faneca and Joey Porter.

The Steelers should restructure Harrison's contract or ask him to take a pay cut. They can't afford to pay him $6.5 million next season, so find a number both sides can agree upon.

Working in Harrison's favor is the Steelers' glaring lack of depth. The Steelers replaced Porter with Harrison and Faneca with Chris Kemoeatu. Their roster isn't deep anymore.

Will keeping Harrison on the payroll make the Steelers a playoff team again? They were 8-8 with him in the lineup in 2012. Although Harrison was slowed by injuries, can the Steelers be absolutely certain he hasn't played his best football?

Harrison is worth the gamble. The Steelers need Harrison because they aren't better without him. Letting him go would be a mistake.

Football being a business, I have the perfect landing spot for Harrison if things don't work out with the Steelers: Cleveland.

New Browns owner Jimmy Haslam, a former Steelers' minority owner, would consider it a major coup to sign Harrison, who was raised in nearby Akron. You better believe Haslam wouldn't ask Harrison to take a pay cut.

“There's no list (of prospective teams),” Parise said. “We're not talking about it. We've certainly not even gone down that road. James loves Pittsburgh. I think the reason people are talking about James is because he's a higher salary guy.”

At the same time, Parise said the Steelers made no assurances they won't release Harrison.

New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw was released last week, a year after scoring the winning touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI. Bradshaw led the Giants in rushing each of the last three years, but he struggled with foot and ankle injuries and was scheduled to earn $4.25 million in 2013.

“Could it happen? It certainly could. The NFL can cut any player at any time,” Parise said. “Having said that, if James Harrison was released, there would be 31 NFL teams interested in him.

“Can we help the Steelers by restructuring James' contract? We're certainly willing to do that. Do we need to take less money? I don't think so. Personally, I think he's a bargain.”

Personally, I think the Steelers could draft a linebacker in the first round to replace Harrison, but their future is now. It's cheaper to keep him.

John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jharris@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JHarris_Trib.

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