By: Zach Metkler, GZ Sports Report Writer
On August 19, news circulated around the NFL of the release of Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because it should: Lewis was the Steelers 3rd-round selection of the 2009 NFL Draft. After a slow start to his career in Pittsburgh, Lewis put on a solid 2012 season, starting all 16 games and tallying 71 total tackles with a whopping 23 passes defended. After leaving for greener pastures, Lewis put on another solid season with the Saints, racking up 41 tackles, 9 passes defended, and 4 interceptions. Lewis would go on to start every game he appeared in between 2012 and 2014 with solid play each of the three seasons.
Things did not go as swimmingly in 2015, however. Lewis suffered a barrage of injuries over the course of the year, of which included a torn labrum, a torn MCL, and a sports hernia, as well as a hip injury and surgery in January. This list sounds like the injuries suffered by a player over the course of a 15-year career, not just a single season.
Fast-forward to the present and Lewis is now a free agent. Earlier in the week, reports began surfacing that the Steelers would be interested in signing Lewis but are extremely concerned about his injury history, especially regarding his hip. The Steelers aren’t alone with this sentiment, as the Detroit Lions, New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals and an unnamed NFC South team have all looked into bringing the defensive back in for a visit. The Steelers also plan on giving Lewis a physical when he arrives in Pittsburgh. This is all fine and great but there is one thing that fans want to know.
Should the Steelers sign Keenan Lewis?
This is one of the more interesting developments surrounding the Steelers in recent memory, especially with his injury history. There are a few factors that need to be considered before a decision is made.
What is the Real Reason the Saints Released Him?
The quick, knee jerk reaction to this question is that the Saints were discouraged by his recent injuries, especially when you consider that he is 30-years old. Saints head coach Sean Payton claims that that was the primary reason for his release:
“He’s 52 weeks post-surgery. … Just availability, ultimately. We wish him well. … I think ultimately, it was just trying to get him on the field. It’s just been, it seems like, a long time.”
Lewis claims that he currently missed time solely due to a strained adductor muscle in his hip and he should be back on the field soon. While it would be easy to write this off as the sole reason, Lewis gave some insight that other issues might have been the reason for his release:
“Dennis Allen (the Saints defensive coordinator), we never got along since day one. It was something that happened years ago. Something that has been in the record books. He just didn’t want me part of it. By that happening, it goes like that sometimes…You get a defensive coordinator who comes in, you’ve got a older guy who proved himself…so I seen it coming…Now my thing is to prove to him once again after seven years. Like (Allen) told me seven years ago, I didn’t have what it takes to make it.”
While the injuries are definitely an issue, it appears that there could have potentially been more than meets the eye with the entire situation. Sean Payton denies that this is the reason, but what coach would say that to the media and confirm player-coach drama? Especially when that coach is a coach the caliber of Sean Payton. Dennis Allen made the above comments to ESPN during the pre-draft process in 2009 while he was the Raiders head coach before joining the Saints in 2015. Additionally, the Saints have been having substantial issues with their secondary, ranking as one of the worst units in football over recent years. While this isn’t entirely Lewis’ fault, it definitely would make sense for the coaching staff to start fresh, especially with the recent success of some young cornerback’s on the roster. Both sides seem to be sticking to their stories so this is hard to gauge.
The State of the Steelers’ Secondary
The Steelers have heavily invested in their secondary over the past two drafts, selecting 3 defensive backs in rounds 1 and 2 of the 2015 and 2016 NFL Drafts. However, early results have not been favorable. Second year cornerback Senquez Golson went down for the second consecutive season with an injury, this time the injury being a Lisfranc injury in his foot that required surgery and will sideline him for over half of the season. Things don’t get much better with the 2016 defensive back selections, with Artie Burns missing time due to a thigh injury and Sean Davis showing that he is a raw prospect with a lot of learning left to do. Because of these injuries, the Steelers are left with William Gay and Ross Cockrell as the starting cornerbacks with highly questionable depth behind them. Davis has been taking reps as the nickel cornerback but is not ready to be a feature part of the defense quite yet and would benefit from sitting at first and easing into playing time.
The logical choice after Gay and Cockrell is 2nd-year cornerback Doran Grant, but he hasn’t done much to demonstrate he deserves a big role on the defense. Over the last half of training camp, he also began seeing reps at safety, where many people believe he is a better fit. Beyond that, the cornerback depth on the roster is a grab-bag of undrafted free agents who have been relative non-factors during the preseason. The Steelers still need secondary help desperately and they need it quickly, especially if they want to be taken seriously on defense.
What Would it Cost to Sign Lewis?
In 2013, Lewis signed a 5-year, $26.3 million contract with the Saints. At the time, this contract made sense as Lewis was one of the young, up-and-coming cornerbacks in the NFL. While he was worth the investment for the first two years of the contract, that price tag clearly was too much when you consider how little time Lewis played last year. Because of these injury concerns, Lewis’ value is extremely clouded as his longevity is in serious question. Much of the contract amount will come down to what the teams interested in him believe he is worth at his age and with his health. Lewis will likely go to a place where he feels comfortable with the coaching staff and can contribute on and off the field. Pittsburgh might be that type of situation, as Lewis told ESPN that the following:
“Pittsburgh [gave] me a great opportunity. I respect that organization [and] I definitely want to give the [situation] strong consideration.”
Based on reports, it would appear that there is definitely mutual interest from both parties for this situation to take place.
Should the Steelers Sign Keenan Lewis?
As I previously mentioned, there are a lot of factors that need to be reviewed before a final decision is made. Much of this will come down to which side you believe. If Lewis passes a physical and his only injury concern is his strained adductor muscle and there truly was trouble in paradise between Lewis and the coaching staff in New Orleans, then it would appear to not be all on Lewis. If he indeed passes a physical, the next issue worth figuring out would be the contract numbers. The Steelers don’t have the cap space to offer him a big contract like the one he signed with the Saints in 2013, but Lewis will likely want more than a minimum level contract. A reasonable contract range would be a $1-$1.75 million contract for 1 year. The absolute max amount I could envision the Steelers signing Lewis for would be $2 million, however I am nearly certain that would throw Steelers Nation into disarray.
At the end of the day, the Steelers are in desperate need of depth and experience in their secondary. If anyone feels comfortable with having just Gay and Cockrell as cornerbacks with no proven depth behind them, then you need to step back and look at the bigger picture. At best, signing Keenan Lewis gives the Steelers secondary a boost and the young cornerbacks have another player to help teach them the ways of the NFL. At worst, Lewis never gets back to form and the Steelers part ways with him after the 1-year contract is up. At this point, the Steelers need help and if Lewis is well on his way to being healthy, the move makes tons of sense.
After all, Lewis wouldn’t be the first player (or cornerback) in recent Steelers memory to revive their career upon returning to Pittsburgh.
I think it’s worth a shot.