While many expected the Pittsburgh Steelers to make some difficult decisions this off-season, few predicted the opportunity to return home the New Orleans Saints would present to 2012 starting cornerback Keenan Lewis. As the team moves on without him, another Louisiana native prepares to seize the opportunity Lewis surrendered.
Josh Victorian has already been there. After entering the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted rookie free-agent out of Louisiana Tech in 2011, Victorian became a practice squad yo-yo for not only the Ravens, but also the New England Patriots and his hometown New Orleans Saints.
Victorian may not be the biggest, fastest or most talented defensive back the league has ever seen, but there is a reason teams just can't let him go. He works hard. He listens to his coaches. He gives everything he has, on every snap; and he can sniff out a football in a hurricane.
Somewhere along the line, greatness among cornerbacks became synonymous with the interception. While creating turnovers will be emphasized this off-season, a player's interception total doesn't speak to their total value. If so, Ike Taylor and his Dwight Stone hands wouldn't be viewed as one of the best by the rest of the league. The truth of the matter is --catching a football can be taught, knowing where the ball is at all times cannot.
The NFL Network's NFL AM crew recently listed their top-100 plays of the 2012 season. Mired in the middle of the ranking at No.26, Victorian can be found doing exactly the type of thing which has allowed his career to survive as long as it has.
The play referred to was statistically attributed to the opportunistic Cortez Allen, who secured possession of the football and got a knee down in bounds. The play was scored as an interception against the Cincinnati Bengals in a valiant but losing effort in Week 16. However, the ball should have never been anywhere close to Allen had it not been for Victorian, whose eyes can be seen still glued to the ball as he's falling backwards out of bounds after tipping the ball to Allen and Troy Polamalu who were closing in behind him.
Unfortunately, most fans only remember Victorian's less productive efforts as he struggled to fill in as the team dealt with injuries to Taylor, Lewis and Allen all around the same time. Few guys make smooth transitions from fifth to second on the depth chart, especially in their second year. However, Victorian wasn't the only one, as Curtis Brown and DeMarcus Van Dyke fared even worse, allowing Victorian to pass them both in the pecking order; and also allowing him to be on the field to make the 26th best play of 2012, even if Allen receives most of the credit for it.
Now, with veteran William Gay returned to the fold to be the third face on the totem pole and rookie Terry Hawthorne's addition via the draft, Victorian finds himself almost forgotten outside of the NFL's highlight ranking; much like his preseason interception after joining the team near the beginning of training camp, while the team had been focused on seventh round draft pick Terrence Frederick and undrafted rookie Walter McFadden. All three became victims of final cuts, but only Victorian was invited back to a familiar place on the practice squad.
While the interception definitely helped attract some attention to himself, it was Victorian's consistent proximity to the football which warranted his retention. He didn't take plays off, and wasn't afraid to stick his nose in anywhere; the same attributes which led to five interceptions and 27 passes defended in college, despite not seeing regular activity until his sophomore season, although his final two seasons were his best as he continued to grow.
Another trait which helped set Victorian apart from his peers was his ability to motivate himself, even when things weren't going so gravy. Many players would begin to give up on their careers when they've been given up on as many times as Victorian has. By the time his hometown Saints signed him to a futures/reserve contract in January 2012, Victorian had been released five times (once by the Ravens and four times by the Patriots) during his one-year career.
Victorian never made it to the regular season, signing with another New Orleans football team -- the Arena Football League's New Orleans VooDoo. While some players seek out the AFL or the Canadian Football League when their NFL dreams don't pan out, Victorian's career did not go there to die. Six weeks later, Victorian was signed away from his hometown to his new home in Pittsburgh.
Victorian's refusal to succumb to rejection fits the very mold the Steelers seem to be retooling their team around. The team has severed ties with players who allowed their focus to be distracted by the size of their paychecks, and replaced them with guys like Victorian and fullback Will Johnson, who worked three jobs while also training for a last-chance shot at a West Virgina pro day, where he outshined the rest of his competition.
The Steelers are building a new foundation on players who have exhibited unbreakable wills and insatiable hungers. They are looking for players who put football first and are willing to go the extra mile on their own. The locker room is now full of men who have goals which revolve around team successes like championships, rather than just personal accolades; men who need football, and not those who start thinking football needs them.
Victorian doesn't just need football; he wants football. His peers should be put on notice, Victorian will not go quietly. Brown and Hawthorne don't understand what it's like to have to earn their NFL existence like Victorian has.
If Victorian takes the next step and survives final training camp cuts for the first time in his career, it will be because he was the hungriest dog in the fight. He's as close to the bone as he's ever been, and he's ready to fight for the right to make it his own.