The New England Patriots bought themselves a late Christmas gift when they signed free agent linebacker James Harrison to a one-year contract yesterday. The 39-year old was available after the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he spent the vast majority of his NFL career, released him on Saturday after he had played only 40 defensive snaps in the five games he appeared in this season.
Despite his limited playing time through the first 16 weeks of the season, Harrison is an intriguing addition to the Patriots. Let's take a look at what signing him therefore means for the team.
The Patriots bolster their defensive edge depth...
It seems unlikely that Harrison slides straight into a starting spot in New England. Instead, he will probably be more of a rotational piece on a defensive edge that has lacked quality depth this season. As such, the five-time Pro Bowler will allow primary edge players like Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr., Eric Lee and – once he returns from injury – Kyle Van Noy to get more snaps off on a regular basis.
...and add quality against the pass and the run.
Harrison's slide down the depth chart in Pittsburgh was the result of his ex-team's youth movement on defense. With Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt offering more versatility as coverage players, the rather one-dimensional Harrison was unable to crack the rotation. It would be a surprise to see the Patriots try to use the veteran in such a role as well. Instead, they will probably allow him to do what he does best: Set a hard edge in the run game – something New England struggled with this season – and play downhill as a pass rusher.
Harrison will probably not spill the Steelers' secrets.
To get it out of the way: The Patriots did not sign Harrison simply to get intel on Pittsburgh's schemes or terminology. Of course, getting a player with his levels of experience within the Steelers' system is an added bonus for New England – he has heard the calls, seen the pre-snap movements, knows the coverages – but at the end of the day, the transaction's goal is to add quality depth at a position of need and not to play mind games.
New England gets a quality addition for little money.
Harrison is a big-name acquisition for the Patriots but not one that will cost the team a lot of money as it appears the team signed him for the veteran's minimum. This means that Harrison and his 14 seasons of NFL experience will count $58,824 against New England's salary cap. With Trevor Reilly being let go as part of bringing Harrison on board, New England loses $22,647 in cap space (per patscap.com's Miguel Benzan).
The Patriots get a relatively fresh player late in the season.
As noted above, Harrison appeared in only five games this season and played a mere 40 defensive snaps. And while he is 39-years old and spent countless hours practicing or working out this season, a) there is little doubt about his fitness and ability to still perform from a physical point of view, and b) he did not have to endure the wear and tear of four quarters of competitive football week in and week out.