Photo Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Steelers Keenan Lewis Signs With Saints And The Fallout

At some point on Tuesday, the Steelers #2 corner, Keenan Lewis, tweeted that he was going to be with a team, but didn’t say with whom. On Wednesday night, reports started coming out stating that the Saints were interested in Lewis.  And, as expected with players and first visits to a team, Lewis walked away with a $26 million deal over five years – with over $11 million in guaranteed money.  Lewis finds himself a new home, the Steelers find themselves wondering how this one got away….. or are they?

Two years ago, all of Steeler Nation was in a state about signing Ike Taylor and how it was the #1 priority for the Steelers.  The Steelers dumped a lot of cap weight, restructured deals, and eventually signed their #1 pass defender to a new four year deal.  Taylor, despite the lack of turnovers, has held up his end of the bargain by shutting down most receivers he goes up against.  Lewis was an UFA this season and was set to be one of the more ‘desired’ corners on the market – just like Taylor was two years ago.

For those who are in a tizzy about Lewis leaving and never hearing nary a word about what the Steelers did to keep him on Pittsburgh soil, don’t be too surprised with this move.  Lewis walked away with an average of $5.2 million a year.  With the cap space that was available from the team, they absolutely could have afforded to keep him.  It would have come at much more a price than $5 million a year.  The team still needs to sign/tender numerous other players and try and find ways to fill the holes left by releases and free agency losses.  That all costs money and would have ultimately meant more releases or the inability to sign someone like say OLB gem Victor Butler (who is slated to meet with the Steelers Friday).  I’m sure the team made an offer immediately and just let it sit for Lewis to stew over.  The Saints became interested (as well as the Titans according to some Twitter sources), and Lewis decided returning home to Louisiana and getting $11 million in gair-ohn-tee money plus incentives sounded better than sticking with the Steelers.  That’s a pretty damn good deal for a corner who had one good emerging season out of four.  Lewis is moving on as are the Steelers, and so should Steeler fans.  Quite frankly, the Steelers may have let him slip by on purpose.  What’s kind of ridiculous to think of, however, is that Lewis’ deal is market value for a #2 corner.  There are media sources down in NOLA right now that are saying things like:

Lewis was one of the top cornerbacks on the market this off season and figures to compete favorably with current Saints Jabari Greer and Patrick Robinson for playing time on the edge.

That’s right – compete for a job.  A top market corner who’s competing against Robinson?  Bizarre.

In hindsight, this certainly proves that the William Gay signing earlier in the week was more than just beefing up the secondary.  It was an insurance policy for a secondary that has not developed the way we all had hoped.  If Lewis were to go elsewhere (and he has) that means third year man Cortez Allen would be sitting in the #2 spot and Curtis Brown in the nickel slot.  Allen certainly proved he has the potential to hang as the #2 corner.  A few butterflies and mistakes later, and Allen was short of brilliant in covering his receivers.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Brown who showed how much work was left in his development after getting torched in the game against the San Diego Chargers last season.  Gay was necessary because he is way better at the nickel position than Brown could ever hope.  Thus again, Colbert and Co. show a brilliant move in being able to read the writing on the wall and nab a player who is familiar with the defense and is good at the postion where there is the need.  A+ work in at least getting that insurance policy.  D+ work in losing Lewis.  Although, something tells me returning ‘home’ played a large factor.

Above all, remember this: This is the downfall to LeBeau’s system.  It takes so long for players to develop and fit within LeBeau’s complicated system that unless you truly are a brilliantly gifted football player, you will take for-ev-er to develop into that starting role.  This is what happened to Lewis.  Since entering the league, Lewis struggled but never got the playing time at a young age to ‘figure out’ his role as a corner.  Factor in the lack of coaching and Lewis was often deemed by Steeler fans as one who needed cut during preseason games.  The hiring of former safety Carnell Lake, and the secondary has improved so much – it certainly showed with Lewis.  But, because Lewis is an UFA instead of even being a RFA, the Steelers were limited with their options.  No tender, no draft incentives for the Steelers.

Certainly LeBeau’s system is a bit of a safety net to catch any ‘unworthy’ players who don’t belong on the field quite yet.  On the other side of the coin to his system lies the situation the Steelers are currently in and what they faced with Lewis – a player who finally came out of his shell within the system, performed well in a contract year and is now too expensive for the Steelers to keep and make use of.  We could very well see the same situation with Cortez Allen in a year or two.

Lewis’ departure leaves many questions for how this secondary will perform come training camp and into the season.  It certainly doesn’t give anyone that warm fuzzy feeling considering how many other positional holes the defense is faced with.  But don’t expect the team to address the corner position early in the draft.  That still will be reserved for linebacker, safety, or running back.

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  • Nine

    I think one of the most understated reasons that Keenan Lewis left, is because of Wallace. People forget that Lewis and Wallace are long-time friends, possibly since childhood, and were high school teammates. Them being drafted in the same year by the same team was quite the story at the time. Now that Wallace is leaving, it isn’t at all surprising that Lewis is out the door as well.

    • Craig

      That’s a really good point if that’s the case. I think it was a little bit of everything that had Lewis out the door.

      • Dom DiTolla

        The Steelers apparently didn’t even offer him a deal. As much as I was against the club paying him “top-dollar (+$7 million per season avg.), the fact that the team didn’t even try to match 5 years for $26 million and instead elected to re-sign veteran scrubs like Gay, Gradkowski, Foote, and Burress was a joke.

        Just over $5 mil per year is fair market value for a #2 Cornerback these days. The fact that Gay is one injury to Ike Taylor or Cortez Allen away from starting again makes my stomach turn.

        I’ll take the “glass half-full” look at the situation though, and simply believe that the reason Lewis wasn’t offered a deal was due to the fact that Lake has so much confidence in Cortez Allen.

    • SteelerFan

      Agree. And add to that Keenan fulfilled a childhood dream to play for the team he cheered for growing up. Nearly his entire family are Saints fans. Great article.

  • Craig
    • Dom DiTolla

      I remember when I wrote that. I was definitely nervous but intrigued about Lewis stepping up last year. He definitely “put enough positive tape” out there for the Saints to like what they saw.

      Just crossing my fingers that Curtis Brown, Josh Victorian, DeMarcus Van Dyke, Justin King, or a Draft Pick can “nut up” this offseason and show enough promise to offset the loss behind Ike and Cortez.

      Then again, LeBeau actually has to play the depth for them to improve, and I really enjoyed how you mentioned how the downfall to sitting prospects has cost the Steelers in your post.

  • Dave Buzard

    I think the free agent money has gotten stupidly out of hand this year. Players at every position have become overpaid, if they play out their contracts. The Steelers continue to be in a pickle as far as cap money goes. Like the 49ers of the mid 2000′s, the Home Team may just have to ride out the existing contracts or flat out cut starters until they are out of the cash crunch. You don’t have to call it “rebuilding” but the “remodeling” has begun.

    • Craig

      Stat from this year’s FA: The NFL has spent $707 million on the Top 25 free agents, of which $297 million is guaranteed. Those 25 FAs have a combined six Pro Bowls. Absurd.