Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers are handcuffed by the salary cap, they have to find a way to re-sign Keenan Lewis, who had a breakout season as a starting cornerback in 2012.
Or do they?
Second-year cornerback Cortez Allen showed in the final two weeks of 2012 that he could push for a starting job in 2013.
Allen intercepted two passes and forced three fumbles. So in two games he was in on 25 percent of the Steelers’ 20 takeaways in 2012. Assuming Ike Taylor returns to health and is ready to go in 2013, the ball-hawking Allen would be a nice complement as a starter to Taylor, who has hands of stone despite being a shutdown corner.
The Steelers could be tempted to save some money by letting Lewis leave as a free agent and starting Taylor and Allen at cornerback next season. Then they could draft a cornerback like Florida State’s Xavier Rhodes or Mississippi State’s Johnthan Banks to replace Allen as the third corner.
Don’t do it, Steelers.
The Steelers are projected to be about $12 million over the salary cap in 2013, according to Steel City Insider. They probably can’t afford to keep every player they want.
If they keep just one unrestricted free agent, it should be Lewis.
To keep Lewis, the Steelers likely will have to say good-bye to left tackle Max Starks and choose who to let go between Larry Foote and Casey Hampton, if they can keep either. They’ll also have to reduce James Harrison’s $10 million cap number. According to Steel City Insider, Lewis is seeking a five-year, $35 million contract. That seems reasonable, especially if they can work a deal that minimizes the cap room used in 2013.
It also seems cheaper than slapping the franchise tag on Lewis, which would cost $10.668 million, according to NFL.com.
Lewis played for $1.26 million in 2012, and he’s earned a big raise. He was second in the NFL in passes defensed in 2012 with 23, according to STATS LLC via the Washington Post.
Of the 23 passes Lewis broke up, 19 came in the last 12 games of the season, beginning in Week 6 at Tennessee. Even though Lewis dropped an interception that could have sealed the win for the Steelers, the 26-year-old emerged as an impact player that night and pretty much remained at that level for the rest of the season.
After Taylor went down for the season in Week 13 at Baltimore, Lewis did all he could to hold the Steelers’ secondary together. He didn’t look like a guy with dollar signs in his eyes as he limped around the field with hip and knee injuries. He risked further injury, which would have diminished his value as a free agent.
Even though it was in vain, the desire Lewis showed in the final weeks of the season speaks more about his worth than any statistic.
Taylor’s broken ankle underscores another reason the Steelers need to keep Lewis. Taylor will be 33 next season and he won’t be around forever.
If Lewis is wearing another uniform next year, the Steelers might be OK for a couple of years with Taylor and Allen starting at cornerback, and that’s assuming Allen’s performance against the Bengals and Browns wasn’t just a flash in the pan.
If Taylor slows down or retires, they’ll eventually need another starter, and it probably would have to be someone who’s still in college right now. Curtis Brown needs to make major strides before he’s ready to start, and does anyone envision riff-raff like Josh Victorian or Justin King still being around in two years?
I don’t, either.
By re-signing Lewis, the Steelers could secure a supply of proven cornerbacks for at least the next five years.