If William Gay’s return to the Steelers signals Keenan Lewis’ exit, Lewis will leave Pittsburgh haven proven two things:
- While history often serves as a useful guide, those who live in the present ultimately write their own history
- Position coaches can and do make a difference in the NFL
Keenan Lewis was one of three third round picks from the Steelers in the 2009 NFL Draft along with Mike Wallace and Kraig Urbik. Yet, it was fifth round pick Joe Burnett that got all of the attention and playing time in what was one of the most trying times for a Steelers secondary in recent memory.
Injuries kept Lewis out of all but three games in that season, yet he came back strong in training camp the following summer in Latrobe. He looked so go that it was said he might challenge for a starting job – until he actually got his audition in Denver.
Lewis flopped badly and took out his frustrations on a sign in the Broncos locker room, an act which Mike Tomlin forced him to pay for. 2010 was tough for Keenan Lewis, he only played in nine games and then mainly on special teams in spite of Bryant McFadden’s struggles at corner.
Keenan Lewis Writes His Own History
By the summer of 2011 most of Steelers Nation had given up on Lewis. History was also against him. A quick survey of Steelers 3rd round picks showed that if they hadn’t shown “something” by the end of their second season, they never would (click here for the comparison between Keenan Lewis and previous third round picks).
A number of Steelers coaches had apparently also come to that conclusion. Fortunately for both the franchise and Lewis, newly installed defensive backs coach Carnell Lake wasn’t one of them.
Lake allowed Lewis to start with a clean slate, and Lewis rewarded his coach’s faith. By the time the Steelers had broken camp at St. Vincent’s Lewis had shown he could play, and by beginning of the season he’d earned a spot in the 3rd down rotation.
Lewis didn’t come on gang busters in 2011, but played well, breaking up passes and making a game-saving interception on Monday night vs. Kansas City.
William Gay’s departure to Pittsburgh West aka Arizona opened a starting spot and Keenan Lewis fought through injury to fend of a fierce challenge from Cortez Allen and won the starting spot.
Again, Lewis rewarded the coach’s faith in him by transforming himself into a one man pass defending machine. Week after week Lewis seemed to make odds-defying pass break up after odds-defying pass break up. By season’s end Lewis had 23 passes defensed – that’s ten more than Ike Taylor and only two less than Taylor’s career best in 2005 (source Steelers.com).
- Not bad for a player labeled a bust after his “sophomore” NFL season.
Lewis benefited from what my friend Ivan Cole from Behind the Steel Curtain has called the “Lake Effect.” Credit Carnell Lake for having the faith and the ability to teach Lewis to play corner in NFL. But Lewis couldn’t have done so without ignoring the naysayers and simply focusing on playing football.
Do the Steelers Have the Cash to Keep Keenan…?
The downside is that Keenan Lewis is budding into a top NFL cornerback just as he’s reaching free agency. In the past, the Steelers have made it a point to try to sign players like Lewis before they hit the open market.
They haven’t done that here. Last summer such a move would have been too risky, and now the Steelers need to guard their salary cap dollars closely and Kevin Colbert has indicated Lewis will be allowed test the waters.
Prior to William Gay’s return, what was to happen to Lewis was anyone’s guess.
- Dejan Kovacevic of the Tribune Review nailed it when he said the Steelers need to pick a number for Lewis and stick to it
The same logic holds true now, except that the number the Steelers pick will be far, far lower.
- One of the clear lessons of the NFL’s salary cap age is that you can’t over pay.
Ideally Lewis can and would be an asset to the Steelers for years to come. But for as strong as Lewis has come on, Cortez Allen has come on even stronger, and could conceivably wrest the starting job from Lewis.
There’s no reason to pay a back up starter money if you don’t have to, and the Steelers are paying William Gay back up money.
Keeping Keenan Lewis would be a great success story for Carnell Lake and the Steelers secondary, but hard to imagine Lewis will not command an average salary that trends towards 8 figures on the open market.
That’s simply going to be out of the Steelers price range.