The Bengals released SAM linebacker James Harrison Thursday and it had nothing to do with the Andrew Hawkins' offer sheet that finally floated into Paul Brown Stadium from Cleveland earlier in the day.
But it had everything to do with youth as the Bengals get ready to put their young linebackers on display at the SAM spot, led by Vincent Rey and Emmanuel Lamur and the return of last year's fourth-round pick Sean Porter.
You had to admit. It was fun seeing him in stripes. Harrison turns 36 in May and played well enough to help the NFL's third-ranked defense in a variety of ways as a 4-3 player in his first season out of the Steelers' 3-4 that made him the most feared defensive player of his era.
"It was great for our coaches, players and fans to have James on our team last year," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis in a news release. "He's a player everyone looks up to because of his ability, his accomplishments and his drive to be the best. He helped us win a division title with his play and with the example he set.
"It's time for us to go a different direction now, with some younger guys, but we will all still reap benefits from having had James with us as a Bengal last year."
According to profootballfocus.com, Harrison was the NFL's ninth-rated outside backer in playing about 37 percent of the plays. The Bengals liked having him and he helped, but at times the fit was tentative. Known as a superb pass rusher, Harrison only rushed 142 times, the same amount of his run snaps and PFF ranked him fourth in the NFL against the run.
He also got high grades in an exit he saluted Bengaldom when he tweeted minutes before the club announced his release, "Many thanks to all the @Bengals fans for your support over the last year - I had a great time in Cincinnati."
His two-year deal was worth his biggest play in stripes, which came with the Bengals looking at a 13-0 hole against the Browns during the most woeful of first quarters.
He did the thing he wasn't supposed to be able to do as a 4-3 backer and dropped into coverage, saw that right end Michael Johnson tipped Browns quarterback Jason Campbell's pass, tipped it himself, and caught it before taking off on a 21-yard touchdown that got called back on a penalty. But not before he ignited the crowd by taking on Pro Bowl center Alex Mack inside the 5 and driving him into the end zone to start a run of 31 straight points in a 41-20 victory they would need to win the AFC North.
"I have nothing but love for James," said defensive coordinator Paul Guenther, who was Harrison's position coach last year. "We asked him to do a lot of different things and he handled it like a true pro. He was a big asset to the younger players in our room and I really enjoyed coaching him."
But the Bengals felt it was time go younger there and in Rey and Lamur they have a pair of agile three-down players who are going to be dropping mainly into coverage and not being used as an end like Harrison was at times.
After Lamur and safety Taylor Mays got hurt to take them out of the two-backer nickel package used on passing downs, Rey, 26, had his best year from scrimmage. When he filled in for injured middle linebacker Rey Maualuga in Baltimore Nov. 10, he became the first Bengal in history to record three sacks and an interception in the same game. A restricted free agent they hope they get back, Rey is comfortable in all three spots.
The 6-5, 240-pound Lamur, the former Kansas State safety who turns 25 in June, has been known to play safety in some Bengals looks and can give them hybrid versatility on first and second down. After flashing in nine games as a rookie, he started the 2012 wild card game at SAM before missing all last season with an injured shoulder.
The 6-1, 237-pound Porter, 23, out of Texas A&M, suffered the same injury earlier in the preseason and also missed the entire season.
Harrison was set to make just $1.1 million this year, so with his $1.2 million signing bonus it's pretty much a wash because they only save about $500,000. The Hawkins' deal has suddenly bigger numbers than reported on Tuesday night so it doesn't matter.
The four-year deal is for $13.6 million rather $12.2 million, reports said Thursday, but the number that puts a different light on it is the nearly $11 million in the first two years.
Plus, he's supposed to get $4 or $5 million this year, depending on the report, while three-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green is making $6.2 million this year.
The Bengals have to figure out if they want to make Hawkins the second highest paid receiver on the team after he finished a season used mainly as the No. 4 receiver in an offense that also throws heavily to three receivers, two tight ends and a running back and is emphasizing the running game under new coordinator Hue Jackson.
But, they also don't want to give a division rival one of the more explosive space players in the league and a guy that Jackson has been hoping to use as runner as well as a receiver.