When the Bengals signed linebacker James Harrison back in April, it seemed like a move born from a perceived lack of depth at the strong side linebacker position. Former starter, Manny Lawson, left for the chillier climate of Buffalo, while the remaining SLB's on the roster were all unproven players. Sure, the Bengals also brought in Aaron Maybin to compete for the job, but I don't think anyone around here was pinning their hopes on him to crack the starting lineup. When it comes right down to it, the team needed a strong side linebacker, and James Harrison was the best option available.
And with most players, that would be the end of the discussion. The team had a hole in the roster and a player was found to plug that hole. Next order of business.
Fortunately for the Bengals--and me for the sake of this article--Harrison isn't just some ordinary player. He's an enforcer. A feared hitter. Someone with a reputation.
In other words, Harrison is more than just a correctly-shaped peg needed to fill a correspondingly-shaped hole. He has intangibles. Intangibles that have been missing on the Bengals' defense for a good, long while. Love him or hate him, he is unrelenting, unapologetic, and unsettling for opposing offenses. The kind of player Mike Zimmer's defense needs to take the next step from top-ten defense to Super Bowl defense. Cornerback Leon Hall agrees:
"When you have an intimidating factor, especially in the front seven, that is real intimidating or has that kind of reputation, as long as it doesn’t hurt the team I think that it’s positive," Hall said. "He’s one of those guys that going into the week other teams are going to have to take a look at. I think it’s definitely important to have somebody like that."
As Hall alludes to, when you have a player that teams must focus their attention on, it generally frees up the other players surrounding him. Even at this advanced point in his career, Harrison still has the ability--and more importantly the reputation--to be that kind of player, dramatically affecting the way opposing offenses play the Bengals. For instance, if a team sees Harrison coming on a blitz, they might feel the need to commit a tight end to help out their tackle, which is then one less player that Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson, or Carlos Dunlap has to get around.
An enticing notion for an already-potent pass rush.
Harrison's intangibles, however, will affect more than just opposing teams, as their biggest impact will likely be felt in the Bengals' own locker room. Already, head coach Marvin Lewis has taken advantage of them by moving linebacker Vontaze Burfict's locker next to Harrison's, clearly hoping that some of those intangibles will rub off on the second-year player. And both Burfict and Michael Johnson have already expressed a desire to "pick his brain" and incorporate parts of Harrison's game into their own.
So, even if Harrison only sticks around Cincinnati for the duration of his two-year deal, it seems as though the team is trying to get as much out of him as possible, transferring his attitude and unique approach to the game onto the next generation of Bengals players. And in the meantime, his presence and reputation will also free up the other players around him as he assumes the mantle of strong side linebacker.
Not too shabby for an April free agent signing.