Optimism Surrounding Keenan Lewis’ Return to the Pittsburgh Steelers is Fading Fast
Everyone knew heading into the 2013 off-season that the Pittsburgh Steelers were going to have some tough decision to make. The first of those tough decision was made yesterday when the Steelers released veteran outside linebacker James Harrison. Harrison’s release didn’t come as a huge surprise, but it’s never easy to replace a player of his caliber. A season ago the Steelers said goodbye to Aaron Smith and James Farrior two main-stays on the defensive front. With Harrison’s release and the Steelers not expected to bring back Casey Hampton in free agency the front seven will see two more of their veteran leaders move on.
It has been a long running tradition in Pittsburgh for them to watch star players leave and replace them with young players who become the next group of stars. That is the reason why most Steelers fans don’t talk about rebuilding, but instead refer to it as reloading. However, the Steelers have had some less-than-stellar draft classes recently and now they will have to do their best to replace Harrison and Hampton this off-season. Steve McLendon seems ready to take over as the nose tackle, but another team could still try to sign him even though he is a restricted free agent. Due to the tender the Steelers placed on McLendon another team would not have to give up any compensation to sign him.
Replacing Harrison at right outside linebacker could be Jason Worilds, but Worilds has had injury issues with his wrist and there isn’t a lot of shared confidence about his abilities. During his three NFL seasons Worilds has played in 42 games and has 10 career sacks, but he has played much better on the left side of the defense than on the right side. For that reason I have brought up the possibility of moving LaMarr Woodley to the right side so that Worilds can play on the left where he looks more comfortable. Woodley has the ability to be one of the top pass rushers in the NFL when healthy and I fully expect him to be back in top form in 2013.
However, during this 2013 season it’s not the veteran players the Steelers are losing that are causing some Steelers fans the most worries. Instead many fans, including myself, are more concerned with the possible loss of corner Keenan Lewis. Lewis finally came into his own and played very well during the 2011 season. In 2012 he took over as a starter for the departed William Gay, who was recently re-signed, and really made a name for himself. Now it is expected that another team may be willing to offer Lewis a large contract on the open market. If that happens the Steelers likely won’t be able to match due to their salary cap issues and will lose their young up-and-coming corner.
The Steelers are also expected to lose wide receiver Mike Wallace. That’s two young players that are just entering their prime that may be on their way out of Pittsburgh. This won’t be the first time the Steelers lose a young play-making wide receiver. They allowed Plaxico Burress to walk as a free agent early in his career and they traded Santonio Holmes to the Jets because of off-the-field issues. However, it’s rare for the Steelers to let a young defensive player walk in free agency.
Early in the off-season most Steelers beat writers and analysts believed that Lewis would be back with the team in 2013, but now that optimism is fading very quickly. Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette has written multiple times recently that he doesn’t believe Lewis will be back because of the deals he will be offered on the open market. Lewis may get a contract with an annual salary in the range of six or seven million. That may price him right out of the Steelers range due to their salary cap issues.
Earlier this week I brought up the idea of cutting Ike Taylor, who will be 33 next season, to open up the cap space needed to keep Lewis around. That idea was met with fans that agreed and disagreed, but my opinion is that the Steelers would be smart to keep the younger player who is just entering his prime rather than a 33 year old corner, who may only have two or three years left in his NFL career.
It would be very hard to watch Lewis walk in free agency just as he starts to come into his own as an NFL corner, but that is the position the Steelers now find themselves in with their salary cap situation. Pittsburgh used to be the type of team that would have cut Harrison two years ago and had a replacement who was a Pro Bowl player last season, but recent draft struggled have caused problems in that area. Instead we may watch a young star leave this off-season.
Luckily for the Steelers they have another young and good looking corner in Cortez Allen. Also, the signing of William Gay back to the Steelers adds some experience and a player that started for the defense just two years ago. However, watching Lewis leave would not be easy and the loss could hurt a secondary that ranked first in the league in 2012. Hopefully the Steelers can come to terms with Lewis on a new deal and he will be back in 2013, but if not the Steelers will be looking to fill yet another hole.