Long before free agency began, you knew it was going to be hard for the Pittsburgh Steelers to keep cornerback Keenan Lewis. Even after Pittsburgh signed William Gay to add depth to the secondary, there was still that glimmer of hope that the Steelers could find some way to hold on to Lewis.
That faint hope disappeared Thursday when Lewis signed a five-year, $26.3 million contract (including a $10.5 million signing bonus) with the New Orleans Saints. Lewis grew up as a player in Pittsburgh, but he chose to return to his hometown of New Orleans. According to The Tennessean, the Tennessee Titans were also involved in talks with Lewis. There is no word whether the Cleveland Browns expressed interest in Lewis.
The Steelers have had their share of losses this offseason. It hurt the team when it released outside linebacker James Harrison, but that was based more on sentiment. It was difficult to see wide receiver Mike Wallace go to Miami Dolphins, but the Steelers made their choice on their receiver of the future last season when they signed Antonio Brown.
The loss of Lewis trumps all of the other previous losses in terms of frustration. Pittsburgh invested four years into the development of Lewis, a third-round pick in 2009. Lewis, 26, finally lived up to expectations last year when he led the AFC with 23 passes broken up in his first season as a starter. He played better than the Steelers' best corner, Ike Taylor, at times even though he was targeted frequently by quarterbacks. Now, after his first productive season, Lewis is going to the Saints while hitting the prime of his career.
Just like last year, the Steelers turn to another draft pick to step up. Cortez Allen, a fourth-round pick in 2011, will take over and start opposite Taylor. Gay, who came back to Pittsburgh after one season in Arizona, is the nickel back.
Lewis is the fifth Steelers starter who won't be coming back to Pittsburgh in 2013, joining wide receiver Wallace, running back Rashard Mendenhall (Arizona), Harrison (released) and guard Willie Colon (released).