Keenan Lewis could be leaving Pittsburgh this offseason. Mandatory Credit: Jim O

The Steelers Should Let Keenan Lewis Leave if He Wants and is Offered #1 Cornerback Money

With Mike Wallace likely leaving for “greener” pastures as early as next Tuesday, starting Cornerback Keenan Lewis is essentially alone at the top of the Steelers’ list of “Must-Sign” UFA’s.  During his first year as a starter, Lewis started 16 games, racked up 71 Tackles, and recorded an A.F.C.-leading 23 Passes Defended.  After his effective audition, the Unrestricted Free Agent’s services are sure to be in high demand next week from Secondary-needy franchises around the League.

Although retaining Lewis is likely a top priority for the Steelers, I do not consider him to be the “Must-Sign At All Costs” UFA he is believed by many to be.  Moreover, I still staunchly believe that Pittsburgh’s brass should exercise fiscal responsibility when they take part in negotiations to re-up their Free Agent Cornerback.

 

Recent Free Agent Contracts, and What Lewis Could Be Offered

Competent pass-defenders are always a welcome addition to any roster.  Thus, if a Cornerback can show some sort of promise early in his career, he can become a very rich man if he tests Free Agent market during his mid-late 20’s.

Even though Lewis was the Pittsburgh’s #2 man behind Ike Taylor at the position, the starter’s Passes Defended numbers from last year and overall skill-set could entice some Secondary-starved teams with plenty of cap-space (Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, and Cleveland) to consider him as a high-priority pickup.

If a market grows for Lewis, some of these franchises might even be willing to shell out “#1 Money” for the Steelers’ #2 man at the position to out-bid others for his services.

So how much do #1 Cornerbacks make in this day and age?  Well, these guys below became very rich men last Spring:

 

  • Cortland Finnegan (5 years: $50 million), 79 Career Starts, 14 Interceptions, 28 years of age when deal was signed.

 

  • Brandon Carr (5 years: $50.1 million), 64 Career Starts, 8 Interceptions, 6 Fumble Recoveries, 25 years old.

 

  • Lardarius Webb (5 years: $50 million + $10 million s.b.), 19 Starts, 7 Interceptions, 4 Forced Fumbles, 1 KOR TD, 1 PR TD, 26 years old

 

  • Eric Wright (5 years: $37.5 million), 71 Career Starts, 13 Interceptions, 26 years old.

 

 

How Much Lewis Should Be Offered

Look, I understand that the number of Passes Defended Lewis recorded last year were the most by any player in the A.F.C. last year.  In addition, I will give Lewis credit for how much he improved in numerous areas of his game, especially in man-to-man coverage, from Week 1 to Week 17.

I however did not consider the soon to be 5th year player to be “lights out,” or Pittsburgh’s most effective Cornerback over the course of the entire 2012 campaign.  I do not believe that a player possessing Lewis’ experience (45 Games, 17 Starts) and inconsistent ability to bring ball-carriers down (whiff against Philadelphia on 4th and Inches last year was awful) should be paid like a #1 guy at his position.  I should also mention that Lewis was not even covering opponents’ #1 targets until Ike Taylor went down with his leg injury against Baltimore in Week 13!  Thus, if the Steelers’ Free Agent Cornerback expects the already strapped Front Office to pay him “top-dollar” this month, I hope that Pittsburgh’s brass tells him to rethink that idea.

Sure, some fans might be wowed by the large number of PD’s Lewis recorded last year, and some believe that those numbers alone make him a #1 Cornerback.  But consider the following fans:

A large reason why Keenan racked up those stats was because the opposition was more willing to test him than they were the crafty veteran like Ike on the other side of the field.  Overall, Keenan was targeted a total of 112 times (2nd most in the League) during the 2012 season according to Pro Football Focus (ESPN.com)!  Thus, shouldn’t any somewhat competent player at Lewis’ position be able to break up the most passes in the A.F.C. if he is targeted that many times over the course of a regular season?

I should also mention that the number “112” also points to the biggest reasons why I believe that Lewis is such a potential “big-money” risk:

 

His deficient ball-skills, and his inability to record Interceptions and Turnovers.

 

As most of you know, although Lewis was targeted so often in 2012, he recorded ZERO Interceptions and only ONE Takeaway (1 Forced Fumble) over the course of the 2012 season!  Let me state that again: 112 times the opposition threw passes Lewis’ way in 2012, and he was unable to record one single “pick!”  Sure, Steeler Cornerbacks have never been known for recording Interceptions in LeBeau’s Defensive scheme.  But “oh-for” in 112 chances for Interceptions, and only 1 Forced Fumble?  Give me a break with that “#1 Cornerback” nonsense.

Look, I am fully aware that Interceptions are not the “be-all, end-all” indicator of great Cornerback play.  And yes, I understand that “shut-down” guys at the position do not record large amounts of Interceptions.  Yet the elite’s lack of “picks” deals less with their overall ball-skills and ability to make plays, and instead more with the fact that opposing Quarterbacks do not want to make a mistake in their direction.

One would think that Corners who earn $50 million over a contract are supposed to have “field-days” on the stat-sheet in terms of Interceptions collected or chances to make “splash plays” if they are targeted 112 times in a season like Lewis was in 2012.  Although I am not an expert, I think that it is pretty safe to assume that none of those guys I mentioned above would have gone “oh-for” if they had 112 balls going their way over a 16 game stretch.

So how much do I believe that Lewis should be making per season?  Well it certainly is not $10 million, that’s for sure.  But Pittsburgh’s Front Office members might want to keep a couple of contracts signed by Cornerbacks last year in mind when they try to negotiate a deal with Lewis:

 

  • Aaron Ross (3 years: $15.3 million), 41 Career Starts, 10 Interceptions, 2 Touchdowns, 2 Super Bowl Rings, 29 years old

 

  • Richard Marshall (3 years: $16 million), 55 Career Starts, 17 Interceptions, 7.0 Sacks, 27 years old

 

The Marshall deal from last year has some numbers which G.M. Kevin Colbert and the rest of the Front Office should really keep in mind.  Lewis, like Marshall, is a Starting Cornerback, but not a #1 guy on his own team.  In addition, Lewis will also be 27 years of age by the time the 2013 regular season gets underway.  By 27 though, Marshall was much more of a productive player than Lewis currently is, and had already logged 38 more starts at the professional level than the former Oregon State Beaver has under his belt in the present.  Pittsburgh’s Cornerback might possess the upside to have a better career than Marshall, but his sample-size is so small that one must question how high his talent ceiling will inevitably be.

Thus, if the Steelers are looking to re-up Lewis, and he seriously wants t0 return, I believe that a contract in the $5-6 million dollar per year range over the duration of 4 to 5 years would be a great place to start for a #2 guy right now like him.  If Pittsburgh’s Coaching Staff believes that he can and will usurp Ike as the #1 guy once he leaves, and can keep the depth behind him at bay too, then some incentive-based bonuses (for TAKEAWAYS) can be included for Lewis to earn.

As I alluded to in a previous post, a 4 year deal worth anything between $22 and $24 million would be more than fair for the Steelers to offer a player with Lewis’ upside.  Yet I in no way shape or form believe that a current #2 Cornerback with only 17 career Starts, 1 career Interception, 2 career Forced Fumbles, 0 Postseason Starts, and hands reminiscent of “cinder-blocks” should receive anything more than that type of “fair” offer at this point in his career.

 

Final Thoughts

Look readers, I am completely and totally in favor of the Steelers re-signing Lewis.  I simply cannot comprehend why Pittsburgh’s brass would want to “break the bank” for such a Cornerback of his caliber and with his lack of experience.  If in fact any team offers Lewis more than $6 million per season, I hope that the Pittsburgh’s brass simply steps away and counts the money which they will inevitably allocate to other more important members on their roster (Maurkice Pouncey and Heath Miller come to mind).

I should also add that it is not like the Steelers have “chopped liver” set to take over for Lewis on the outside if he decides to leave.  Cortez Allen is waiting in the wings if Lewis takes his game elsewhere, and the soon to be 3rd year Cornerback should be primed to improve off of a very productive year as Pittsburgh’s Nickelback in 2012.  The former Citadel star not only set a career high in Tackles last year with 55, but he also finished with 10 PD’s, 2 Interceptions, 3 Forced Fumbles, and 1 Fumble Recovery.

Granted, if Lewis leaves the Steelers will have to rely on William Gay and youngsters like Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, and DeMarcus Van Dyke to play with consistency, and pick up the slack in the Slot and sub-packages.  By the same token though, Pittsburgh’s brass will be able to learn whether or not the younger guys have the potential to improve, and are indeed worthy of being in the franchise’s long-term rebuilding plans.  While some of you will complain about the inevitable “growing pains,” just remember that Lewis was not exactly setting the N.F.L. “on fire” early in his career (2010 Denver Preseason Disaster).  It took him 3 full years before he showed any sort of competency as a starter, and I should add that it was during a “contract year” for him.  Remember readers, Ike Taylor signed a deal worth $28 million over 4 years after he had started on 2 Super Bowl teams, and established himself as the team’s best Cornerback over the half decade preceding the 2011 deal.  Has Lewis done anything like that over his 4 seasons at the professional level?

Current depth and concerns about Lewis aside, I actually would like nothing more than for the Steelers to re-sign their #2 Cornerback.  I just hope that the members of the Steelers’ Front Office do not have to “make it rain” to keep him in Pittsburgh.  A $30+ million dollar deal will simply not be worth the time, effort, and cap-space for a rebuilding franchise like the Steelers to take on at this juncture.

 

 

Readers: Should the Steelers pay “top dollar” to keep Lewis in town?  Or are they better off giving Allen a chance to start, and allocating their cap-space elsewhere?

 

 

 

Stats Courtesy of: Pro Football Reference.com and ESPN.com

Contract Information Courtesy of: Spotrac.com and CBS.Sportsline

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Tags: 2013 Free Agency Cornerbacks Keenan Lewis Pittsburgh Steelers

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