Pittsburgh Steelers release franchise sack leader James Harrison

Harrison, 39, phased out by Steelers in 15th season; will a contender pursue pass rusher?

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Steelers LB James Harrison — the franchise's all-time leading sack artist — was released Saturday, and RT Marcus Gilbert was activated from the suspension list.

Harrison, at 39 the NFL's oldest non-quarterback/kicker, has barely played in his 15th season, with first-round OLB T.J. Watt receiving the majority of reps opposite Bud Dupree on the NFL's eighth-ranked scoring 'D' (No. 3 in sack percentage). Harrison has totaled just 40 defensive snaps among his five appearances, including just one since Week 7, and his one sack is tied for a career low.

Harrison could clear waivers and return to the Steelers, with whom he entered the NFL in 2002 as an undrafted free agent and has played 14 seasons, en route to five Pro Bowls and a pair of Super Bowl titles.

Or, would a postseason contender seeking a pass-rush jolt — the Patriots immediately come to mind — claim Harrison, whose 82.5 career sacks are the most ever by a Steeler and rank eighth on the active NFL list?

Harrison authored one of the most famous plays in Super Bowl history to culminate his 2008 defensive MVP campaign. On the final play before halftime of Super Bowl XLIII, he intercepted Kurt Warner in the end zone, returning it 100 yards to give the Steelers a 17-7 lead. Warner and Larry Fitzgerald would fight their way back before Ben Roethlisberger hit Santonio Holmes in the right corner of the end zone in the final minute to help secure the second Lombardi trophy under coach Mike Tomlin.

Harrison had made it clear he was unhappy about his playing time after signing a two-year, $3.5 million deal last offseason. Barring injury, that's unlikely to change with the Steelers. Dupree is having his finest season, and Watt has been mentioned as a possible Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate, with six sacks alongside six passes defensed, an interception and forced fumble.

But the team standing in the Steelers' AFC path toward the Super Bowl has a pass-rush void and a reputation for attempting to maximize other club's castoffs. It would be a fascinating twist in this conference rivalry, to say the least. But the most likely scenario may be that Harrison, the undersized former Kent State product, has reached the end of one of the NFL's more improbable success stories.