Keenan Lewis – Fighting for a Roster Spot, Fighting Steelers History

For as much as popular pro football culture bemoans preseason football, this part of the NFL calendar is laden with opportunity.

And perhaps no Steeler has more on the line than Keenan Lewis.

To win Lombardi Number Seven, the Steelers must improve their secondary. Bryant McFadden and William Gay are known commodities. While serviceable, neither man has much, if any, upside.

Lewis’ slate is a little less cluttered.

Injuries kept Keenan Lewis on the bench in 2009. But Lewis vaulted past Joe Burnett last summer and earned himself a preseason start…

…And then fell flat on his face against Denver, getting torched so badly he had to be pulled from the game only to break a sign in a temper tantrum.

Lewis wasn’t seen much for the rest of 2010, and what little Steelers Nation saw was not good.

Nonetheless, Mike Tomlin, seldom one to coddle, gave Lewis a vote of confidence in the off season, explaining that Lewis “needed snaps” to get better.

And now Tomlin is giving Lewis his shot.

History as a Guide?

– History teaches everything including the future.


Conventional NFL wisdom holds that a player makes the biggest leap between his rookie and sophomore seasons.

The Steelers history validates this. Leon Searcy, Troy Polamalu, Ziggy Hood, and Chad Brown played sparingly as rookies only to snatch strangle holds on starting spots in their second years.

In contrast, as Brett Keisel and James Harrison illustrate, late picks often undergo multi-year apprenticeships emerge later as starters.

But what of third round picks? What’s their typical development path?

If the history of the Steelers 3rd round draft picks since 1987 serves as any guide, Lewis has little hope.

The vast majority of Steelers third round picks’ career trajectory was clear by the time they entered their third training camp.

Going into year three most of the Steelers 3rd round picks were locked into bumbling towards ‘busthood’, flashing and fading, settling into supporting roles or sprinting towards stardom, with only a few reversing course.

Bumbling Towards ‘Busthood’

Chuck Lanza’s, ’88, final NFL play was the faulty snap that ended the ’89 Steelers shot at their own Mile High Miracle. Craig Veasey, 3b ’91, Chris Conrad, 3a ’98, and Steven Conley, ’96, all played spot roles in their first two years before getting their walking papers. Kris Farris, 3b ’99, never played a down in Pittsburgh. Paul Wiggins, ’97, dressed just once his rookie season and got cut next summer.

Anthony Smith’s, 3a ’06, big words and little actions ensured that his third year with the Steelers was his last. Willie Reid, 3b ’06, played all of seven games in two seasons. Bruce Davis, ’08, was one-and-done after he couldn’t contribute on special teams.

Flashing and Fading

Charles Lockett, ’87, and Derek Hill, ’89, both started games in their first two years but were out of football thereafter. Bam Morris, ’94, looked liked a 3rd round steal until drug problems sent him packing. Amos Zereoue, 3c ’99, played little in ’99 and ’00 and, although he did improve, he was never able or willing to fulfill his potential. Matt Spaeth, ‘07 caught what little the Steelers threw his way in his first two years then saw his progress level off in ’09 and ’10.

Settling into Supporting Roles

Guys like Jon Witman, ’96, and Kendrick Clancy, ’00, both established themselves as role players going into year 3. Much the same can be said of Andre Hastings, ’93, who did the same as a part-time starter/slot receiver and effective punt returner. Entering his third year Max Starks, ’04, had shown himself to be the serviceable, if not solid starter. Likewise, going into year three, the skinny on Trai Essex, ’05, was that he was a marginal “sixth” lineman.

Sprinting Towards Stardom

Guys like Neil O’Donnell, 3a ’90, Ernie Mills, ’91, and Chris Hope perhaps weren’t “stars” but all three were growing into their upsides when they began their 3rd summer at Latrobe.

By his third training camp Joel Steed, ’92, was the anchor of the Steelers of the 90’s defense. Jason Gildon, ’94, was embarking on the first of 8 straight starting seasons. Hines Ward, 3b ’98, started his third season on the bench behind Troy Edwards, but Hines was clearly a keeper. Finally, by the time he entered his third season, Joey Porter clearly wasn’t going to merely live up to the Steelers Linebacker Legacy, he would add to it.

Reversing Course

Brendan Stai, ’95, helped turn around the season for the Steelers and played well in both ’96 and ’97, but his play dropped off after that.

Hank Poteat, 3b. ’00, and Mike Vrabel, 3b.’97, for different reasons both had difficulty defining their roles with the Steelers, but both went on to contribute elsewhere.

Define History or Be Defined by History

– You must always know the past, for there is no real Was, there is only Is.

William Faulkner

What does all of this mean for Keenan Lewis?

Ask Mike Tomlin he’d probably be less poetic than Faulkner but he’d likely explain that “Keenan’s story is about Keenan. The stories of other 3rd round picks are irrelevant.”

The Steelers-Eagles preseason game wasn’t shown in Buenos Aires (surprise), so I can offer no analysis of my own, but here’s what others say:

Tony DeFeo of Behind the Steel Curtain offered this:

I focused my attention on Keenan Lewis most of the night, and I have to say, he really impressed me with his coverage ability.

Mark Kalboy of the Tribune Review said:

Give Keenan Lewis credit for not being overwhelmed against the Eagles. Now, he had just as many bad plays as good ones, but he never gave up the big play and seemingly was in the right spot the majority of the time. That’s a positive sign for this kid.

In Yoda-speak, one should caution, “One successfully preseason game does not a career turnaround make.”

Keenan Lewis cannot change the past, but he make his own history in the future, starting now. It looks like he took a first step towards that the other night against Philly.

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