The Steelers’ dalliance with Jacksonville free-agent halfback Maurice Jones-Drew on Wednesday was mystifying, from both ends.
Jones-Drew, who led the NFL in rushing with 1,606 yards in 2011, held out the entire spring and preseason in 2012, looking for a new contract from the Jaguars. His had two years to go. He did not report to the team until Sept. 2 and wound up having a terrible season — 414 yards. It wasn’t much better in 2013 when he gained 803 yards and averaged just 3.4 per carry.
Now he is a free agent, at age 28 and having played eight seasons with Jacksonville, which drafted him in the second round from UCLA in 2006.
Here is what Jones-Drew wants: Money, and a place to start. With the Steelers, he would get neither. They have their horse in Le’Veon Bell and are looking for someone to spell him, especially since they have no experienced halfbacks under contract behind him.
They also have little money to spend and a whole lot of things they must do with it. According to the NFL Players Association, they have $2,174,434 in salary cap space.
In 2009, Jones-Drew signed a five-year, $31 million contract with the Jaguars and he received every penny of it. He made $5 million last season.
So why go through the dog and pony show Wednesday on the South Side? It could be he used the Steelers to show other teams there is interest in him. The Steelers let themselves be used because now they know a little more about him, starting with his physical. There’s also the matter that the NFL is more than a week into free agency, and Jones-Drew remains a free agent. If he goes around a little more and finds no one else wants to offer him big money or a starting job, perhaps the Steelers’ situation might look better to him.
It has happened before.
Welcome back, Harrison?
James Harrison told everyone the other night that he would love to return and play for the Steelers, and the Steelers are indeed considering that option.
It makes too much sense for them not to be.
The Steelers are extremely thin and relatively unproven at outside linebacker. They wanted Harrison back last season at more than $3 million. They might be able to get him back now at the veteran minimum in which he would earn $955,000 in salary plus a $65,000 roster bonus and count only $635,000 against the salary cap in 2014.
While Harrison appeared to be a fish out of water last season in Cincinnati’s 4-3 defense, Pro Football Focus ranked him the second-best performer among the Bengals’ linebackers in 2013 behind only Vontaze Burfict, who received a 10.6 rating to Harrison’s 8.4. They rated Jason Worilds at 9.5 and Jarvis Jones at minus-3.9. Harrison, though, played only 383 defensive snaps, about one-third as many as Burfict.
Nevertheless, the Steelers, if they do sign him, would not bring Harrison back to start. He would play in a part-time role behind Jones.
The Steelers really have nothing to lose. Right now, they have only Chris Carter as any kind of experienced backup on the outside (Lawrence Timmons can play there, as he has in the past, if they really need him to). If they sign Harrison and he shows in training camp he no longer has it, they would be out that $65,000 signing bonus.
Besides Jones-Drew, the Steelers also had 5-foot-9 wide receiver Lance Moore in for a visit, and he left. He was released this year by the New Orleans Saints. He would be a fallback option in case they cannot re-sign Jerricho Cotchery, who remains their priority. Cotchery visited the Carolina Panthers Monday and Tuesday but left without agreeing to a contract.
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.