Pittsburgh Steelers value James Harrison as a mentor and a pass rusher

PHOENIX -- The seeds for James Harrison's second return to the Pittsburgh Steelers were planted during his first one -- specifically when both player and team wondered if they had made a mistake right after the Steelers talked Harrison out of retirement last September.

“To be perfectly honest [after] the first practice I don’t know if we thought he could do it,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said at the NFL owners meetings. “I don’t know if he thought he could do it because he was in great lifting shape but wasn’t in cardiovascular football shape but he fought through it.

“I just can’t underscore how much he means to those guys or how much he meant to those guys when he came back and got himself into James Harrison football-type shape. The respect that he commanded from those young guys, I think it really opened their eyes because a couple guys hadn’t seen him.”

Harrison is back for another season and the Steelers are as happy to have him as a leader as they are a player who can still get after the quarterback.

It may seem natural that Harrison would be a team leader given his experience and maniacal work ethic. But Harrison’s personality, which can be prickly, never seemingly lent itself to the 12th-year veteran throwing an arm around a younger player and offering to teach him the ins and outs of the Steelers' defense.

But Colbert said Harrison, who turns 37 in May, embraced a leadership role at the end of his career simply because the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year may be more comfortable with it.

“It looks different to me because it’s him and younger guys. Before it was always him and his peers,” Colbert said. “Now it’s James and his students in our eyes.”

Harrison’s importance as a mentor is such that Colbert said it was a significant factor in the Steelers signing him now instead of waiting until after the conclusion of offseason practices or even during training camp.

The logic to waiting to sign Harrison is it would allow younger player to get more work since he doesn’t need it and can easily work his way into football shape.

“We actually thought about that but the values that he provides right now for those young guys we think trumps that waiting because he’s valuable in the building right now,” Colbert said. “He’s been in the building voluntarily since really the end of the season. It’s been amazing to watch. Those young guys see it and they’re like, ‘OK, I think I’m supposed to do that too.’ We can’t have them there mandatory but they’re all kind of following his lead.”