Steelers chose the right path by letting Keenan Lewis walk a different one

Jonathan Daniel

Pittsburgh had a difficult decision to make in 2013. Pay Keenan Lewis, or sign William Gay to a vastly less expensive contract despite his ability to produce disproportionately to those statistics, and use Cortez Allen on a cheap contract. Expect Allen to get paid, that was the Steelers' plan all along.

Two rights shouldn't make a wrong.

Taking the assumption of a short-term loss for the sake of a long-term gain is all a team pushed against the salary cap can do. It can be called rebuilding. Or reorganizing.

Let's get rid of the "re"s. Let's call it calibrating. The Steelers didn't fail to sign the best cornerback available to them in 2013, they refreshed their definition of what "best" means while remaining true to the future application of that same definition.

Post Gazette reporter Ed Bouchette wrote Thursday the path Steelers cornerback Cortez Allen is on is similar to that of ex-Steelers CB Keenan Lewis - who hit free agency and took a deal with his hometown team, the New Orleans Saints.

Such a stance is true in a sense. The reality is, though, Allen's path always had Pittsburgh dollars paved inside it.

The Steelers made a run on cornerbacks from 2009-11. Lewis and Joe Burnett came to Pittsburgh via the third and fifth rounds, respectively, of the 2009 draft. Crezdon Butler joined via the fifth round in 2010, and Curtis Brown and Allen were acquired in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, in 2010.

The Steelers develop cornerbacks from the middle rounds, and by 2010, they faced Ike Taylor's final contract year, and had re-acquired Bryant McFadden, despite what was clearly an aggressive move to replenish what would be the league's top defense that year with young cornerbacks.

It was quite a price to pay for such a small return. Burnett didn't make it, neither did Butler by the time Allen and Brown joined. Lewis had the size and was being given a coat of polish. Allen and Brown were the uber-athletic high-ceiling, low present value guys from the start. Lewis took the starting position opposite Taylor in 2012, and Allen, in his second year, would be the third cornerback, playing inside in nickel packages.

All three of them would be injured at different points of the year, but it was Lewis's ability to get to the ball (23 passes broken up, second-most in the NFL) and Allen's playmaking ability (five forced takeaways in the team's final two games) that first presented the fork in the road for the last remaining members of the Great Cornerback Project from the end of the last decade.

Remove Brown from that list after he was shredded in his first real game opportunity; an injury replacement situation against San Diego in 2012 when he allowed seven catches on seven targets, six of them on third down, helping San Diego silence the return of Ben Roethlisberger in a big win.

Lewis was hitting free agency and was considered a top target for retention for the cap-strapped Steelers. On one hand, you have a player who broke up more than one pass a game - a key statistic in the coverage ability of a defensive back. He was young, starred in his first starting role with the team and despite being an average tackler, his passer rating against was a respectable 80.7.

On the other hand, and lying just under the surface, was an opportunity for the Steelers to kill two proverbial birds with one hypothetical stone. Allen's passer rating against was 68.5 (admittedly in a smaller sample than Lewis). Despite getting to the ball often, Lewis only managed one interception in 2012, which was also the only interception he had in his four-year career.

Words are passed as to who offered what to Lewis and when, but the reality is the Steelers are a patient organization. They didn't have to make Lewis a contract offer, technically, until right before the start of free agency. While that may risk upsetting Lewis, the player who had developed on the team for the last four years.

Fact: Lewis was a free agent who, statistically, performed well in his first year as a starter. 
Fact: Allen showed similar success in a lesser role, and would still be playing on his rookie contract for the 2013 and 2014 seasons. 
Fact: Taylor was signed through the 2014 season, and the cost to release him was higher than what it would have cost to keep both Lewis and Allen, despite Taylor turning 33 years old that season.

Stone meets the hardened surface, with a future decision between them. It's reasonable to suggest the Steelers were stalling, knowing they could bide their time before making their last best offer to Lewis. In stalling, they could wait and see how the market would shape up - it wouldn't be the first time a player would be released just before the start of free agency. That player could slant the team's decision one way or the other.

Fact: Ex-Steelers CB William Gay was released by the Arizona Cardinals just a few days before free agency began. 
Fact: Gay, despite being generally savaged by Steelers fans, had a passer rating against of 80.0, slightly better than Lewis. Generally speaking, the stats favor Lewis, although not nearly as much as it would seem. Gay had two interceptions in 88 targets, while Lewis had one in 112 - that one coming from fourth-string Chiefs quarterback Tyler Palko on a desperation throw late in a 13-9 Steelers win.

Gay surrendered 52 catches for 726 yards. Lewis, 59 for 694. Lewis was targeted 112 times, Gay was targeted 88.

For a numbers geek, Lewis likely takes the prize. But a team scraping the ceiling of the salary cap, the dollars speak louder than words. A quick call to Gay's agent, the Steelers can offer him a 3-year, $4.5 million deal with a $500,000 signing bonus. It's reasonable to assume Lewis's asking price was at least in the ballpark of what New Orleans offered, a deal he would eventually sign: 5-year, $25.5 million, $10.5 million guaranteed, including a $6 million signing bonus.

Lewis was good. If you feel Lewis's performance in 2012 was six times better than Gay's, I have some oceanfront property in Nevada to sell you.

All of this is goes over the fact Allen just came off a two-game performance in which he forced three fumbles and intercepted two passes, including this incredible play against Cincinnati (nod to Josh Victorian as well, perhaps another reason considered at the time of this decision).

For those keeping score at home, this is how it adds up:

2013 Option A: Lewis, Taylor and Allen at $10.9 million on the cap ($2.3+$7.9+$653k)
2013 Option B: Gay, Taylor and Allen at roughly $9.7 million on the cap ($1.2+$7.9+$653k)

At this point, the Steelers had to release its long-standing outside linebacker, James Harrison, and draft a rookie to start. It had to restructure the contracts of multiple veterans to create cap space. More than just 2013, though, Lewis's cap number was expected double in 2014, reaching $4.5 million.

The Saints have already restructured Lewis's deal, converting $4.4 million of salary into bonus money, pushing it to the back end of the contract. Meanwhile, the Steelers reduced Taylor's 2014 salary, and still reap the benefit of Gay's cheap deal, pushing the aforementioned options in a completely different direction.

(Assuming Lewis's deal is not restructured)
2014 Option A: Lewis, Taylor and Allen $13.6 million ($4.5+$7.6+$1.5). 
2015 Option B: Gay, Taylor and Allen $10.7 million ($1.6+$7.6+$1.5)

That's over $4 million in cap savings in two years. Is Keenan Lewis really worth that much? With all due respect to Lewis - an outstanding player who did well for the Saints this past season - he's not.

The decision to let Lewis walk was, logically at least, a financial one more than anything else. Gay's availability before free agency in 2013 may have been the deciding factor, but looking at it long-term, there was more reason for the team to want to keep Allen based on the combination of performance and salary in 2013 than Lewis. Allen made plays, and he was cheaper for two more seasons. Statistically, there hasn't been a significant dropoff in product from Lewis to Gay.

The key here, which shows Allen is not on the same path as Lewis, is the fact the team knew in 2013 it would be in a much better financial position to pay Allen in 2015 than it was to pay Lewis then. Plus, Allen showed far more potential in his second year than Lewis showed in his. They knew they could get Allen starter's snaps in 2013 and 2014 at a low cap number, and give him the long-term deal.

That was the decision then, and that's the path Allen is on now. He'll play 2014 on his current deal (as mandated by the CBA) and he'll sign an extension in the offseason of 2015, right as Taylor's prorated bonus finally is all counted.

And if Allen returns to the flashes he showed at the end of 2012? It may end up being the best financial decision the team has made in the last few years.

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