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James Harrison: A Bengals free agency cautionary tale

The age-defying Steelers linebacker had a one-year stint with the Bengals a few years ago, but it didn’t work out the same way as much of James Harrison’s career with the Steelers has gone.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Cincinnati Bengals Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

It’s no secret that the Bengals are slow-movers in free agency. After getting burned by questionable decisions, in one form or another both during and before the Marvin Lewis era, the Bengals have preferred to rely on the NFL Draft process to build their roster.

One could look back at a number of free agency decisions the Bengals have made of late and gain disbelief. One of the higher-profile signings they made recently was in the 2013 offseason signing of James Harrison and it came with mixed results.

In the HBO documentary, “Hard Knocks”, fans got an up-close look at the highly-intense Harrison and his now-famous workout regimen. On the surface, it seemed like a typical Mike Brown move: a high-profile star at the end of his career, who could be had on the cheap. Harrison had some things to prove though, and while his statistics weren’t gaudy with the Bengals, he showed enough to be picked up by the Steelers for the three seasons that followed, first on a one-year deal and then a two-year extension. He’s a free agent in 2017 but he says he wants to return to the Steelers next season at the age of 38 to play his 15th season in the NFL. You’d have to assume the Steelers are interested in having him back.

Now, on the surface, the Harrison signing made a ton of sense for the Bengals. Obviously, his tenacity and experience in the postseason seemed to be a good fit in Cincinnati’s locker room. However, it just wasn’t the boost the Bengals seemed to need, as they once again lost in the first round of the playoffs—that time to the Chargers at home. In his one year with the Bengals, Harrison had one of the worst years of his career. He recorded 30 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 1 interception and 1 pass defended. Since he's returned to the Steelers, he's had no fewer than 40 tackles and 5.0 sacks per season. This season, he had 53 tackles, 5.0 sacks, 1 pass defended and 1 interception. Maybe he was just never that interested in playing for his former and now again rival in Cincinnati.

What went wrong and lessons learned:

A frustrating issue with the Bengals, both in the draft and in free agency, is in their inability to use certain players to their respective strengths. Harrison’s stint with the Bengals seems to be a prime case study.

In his 13 successful seasons with the Steelers, Harrison has made a Hall of Fame-like career as an edge rusher. He’s averaged almost six quarterback sacks per season, and even though it doesn’t sound like much, four of those years were with Harrison clamoring for an actual NFL role in his early years. However, aside from his first couple of seasons with limited snaps, his two sacks with the Bengals in 2013 were the fewest of any significant season he spent with the Steelers.

The issue here is the Bengals attempting to put a round peg in a square hole. Cincinnati has long-employed a 4-3 or nickel look for their defense, and, simply put, Harrison’s role as a strong-side linebacker in that scheme just didn’t fit.

This year, the Bengals need to make moves, but they need to be savvy with them. While Harrison was a shot in the arm from an attitude perspective, he still only had two sacks and 30 total tackles. Since his return to Pittsburgh, Harrison has had 20 sacks, including some impressive postseason performances, including a great game against the Chiefs in the Divisional Round this year.

Part of the reason the Bengals like to re-sign their own players in free agency is because they know how they fit into their systems. Unfortunately, many outsiders they bring in and newbies from the draft have disappointed because they aren’t being used to their respective strengths.

That needs to change in a big way this offseason if the Bengals are to make a turnaround and get back to the postseason in 2017.