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Steelers 2013 Free Agency: Signing Keenan Lewis or letting him walk

The Steelers saw Keenan Lewis turn into one of the emerging cornerbacks in the league in 2012. In the past, they had those players on the cheap for more than one season. Looking down the line, their decision to restructure and keep several veteran players around may cut short their ability to get talented younger players on the field when they're cheap.

Jared Wickerham

The difficulty of finding balance between the present and the future has to keep NFL general managers awake plenty often throughout the year. The Steelers find themselves stuck fighting that balance, while recognizing the pull of inertia from one year to the next can be quite powerful, and the ability to over-correct from one season to the next is always at risk.

Reader Greig Clawson makes a good point when discussing this in SteelCityRoller's "Mocking The Steelers Roster: Out With The Old" piece dated Feb. 5:

Much of the focus is on the 2013 salary cap, but I think the price tag of the 2014 roster will weigh just as heavy on what to do with many of these players. Any restructures will add to the cost of the 2014 cap, and then their is the projected cost of any rookies coming off their rookie deals after 2013 and 2014. It may be that the Steelers can make things work to keep Harrison, Keisel, etc around for 2013, but no way to make the math work out so that they can resign guys like Pouncey the following year.

The Steelers may very well lose Keenan Lewis because of promises to players who are likely to retire over the next two years. How many more rookies are the Steelers willing to lose out on to keep these guys around another year?

There's plenty of reason to think it's a bad idea to play Restructure Roulette for another season. First off, they still need to field a competitive team (or their belief that what they have in competitive). The decisions they'll make this offseason will be the same whether they have $15 million in cap space or they're over by a few million.

The main thing here is who they're restructuring - or perhaps, if they even get to that point.

More: Steelers draft news | Steelers Free Agents | Steelers salary cap

The elephant in the room here is the 2013 contract of Ben Roethlisberger. He's owed $20 million for the upcoming season, which hits the cap like a sledgehammer. Roethlisberger's contract was likely drawn up this way at the request of his agent, because it forces both sides to come back to the table. Ben wants more guaranteed money - when he gets that money is oftentimes secondary to the total amount.

Tacking on new money to his deal in the form of an extension would allow the team to give Roethlisberger a certain payday now, and reduce his salary down to a much more manageable level. They can convert a large chunk of what's owed into a signing bonus that could be spread over four years, lowering his cap number.

The downfall to this from the team's perspective is they have to guarantee even more money to a quarterback who's often injured, and the cap hit will be felt from this year through 2017. Unfortunately, though (and not every shares this opinion), that's the price of having an experienced champion quarterback on your roster. There is no reducing his salary; that's how much they make.

So it's far wiser, in my useless opinion, to simply accept the fact he's the cornerstone of your franchise and give him a contract that will lock him in until he's 35 than continuing to restructure players who are either already 35, or won't be viable options at their respective positions in the near future.

Sometimes you have to stop and turn around before you're going in the right direction. That means things aren't moving forward for a short amount of time. Maybe that's right now.

As Greig said, the Steelers run the risk of losing out on a great player - Keenan Lewis - simply because they're short on depth at other positions - a conscious choice they made. However, the same mentality applies. Sometimes you have to cut losses in one place to restore future balance in multiple other places.

Lewis did a great job this season. He very well could get a deal somewhere around $20-25 million guaranteed (think five years, $40 million). Maybe he'd stay for less. The fact is, though, with the amount of money Ike Taylor is owed (over $7 million in cap money over the next two years), and the level of play shown by Cortez Allen (who's still playing on his rookie contract), they may have to let Lewis go and look for Taylor's replacement in this draft.

This is, in my further useless opinion, where the Steelers have fallen off over the last few years.

Lewis performed at a high level, and is cheap. I'm not saying the Steelers won't re-sign Lewis, but if they don't, they will have put in three years of work with him before he saw the field. Then they got one year of performance before he left. He never played when he was cheap.

The Steelers face the exact same issue with Allen next year, if they let Lewis go. They'll face it also at outside linebacker. Jason Worilds is set to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2013 season. The Steelers have too much time invested Worilds, a former second-round pick, to keep James Harrison - who's clearly the superior player of the two. They have to get Worilds on the field to see what they have.

But it's a double-edged sword. Let's say Worilds goes off in 2013. He's that much more expensive in 2014. If he doesn't do anything, he's cheap, but your confidence in keeping him is down, but you may not have many options. If they're able to play him with two cheap years left and get good production out of him, the team is that much better off. But now, they're forced to release the expensive veteran and, at best, get one semi-cheap year out of an unproven Worilds.

Keeping the veterans around does not in and of itself hurt a team's ability to develop players. But the fact the younger players by and large haven't been playing when they were cheap is what's hurt this team today.

To the Steelers' credit, they wanted to win, which is why they've kept the veterans (who are usually just better than the younger players) around for as long as they have. They sacrificed a bit of the future for the sake of trying to win now. That's the root of what Steelers GM Kevin Colbert was saying at the end of the season. If they're going to go 8-8 in a year after they spent a boatload of cash in restructuring veteran contracts instead of biting the bullet, they'll think long and hard about taking the same route this year.

It could have cost them one of the emerging cornerbacks in the league this year.

That's the doomsday scenario, though. There's ample reason to think the restructuring of Roethlisberger can free up enough money to pay Lewis. And judging by their faith in rookie undrafted free agent Josh Victorian (he started a game against Dallas, one of the top passing teams in the league, and could have performed far worse than he did), maybe they do have a corner who can play for a few years on the cheap. They've also got undrafted free agent safety Robert Golden and outside linebacker Adrian Robinson developing in the wings. Maybe these players can offset the dead money the team will have to take on with the likely release of Willie Colon.

However we want to slice it, it's arguably the most critical offseason the Steelers have faced under Colbert, and we'll find out in the coming weeks how they're going to play it out.