Pittsburgh Steelers: Keenan Lewis

PITTSBURGH – This is the next in a series that takes a post-free agency, post-draft look at the all of the positions with the exception of quarterback.

Our eighth look is at the position that is causing Steelers’ fans the most anxiety right now.


Who is new: Brice McCain and Shaquille Richardson. The Steelers signed McCain to a one-year, $795,000 contract after he spent his first five seasons with the Texans. They took Richardson with the first of their two fifth-round draft picks.

Who is gone: No significant losses. Not this year, anyway.

Returning starters: Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen. Taylor is back after agreeing to a pay cut. The 11th-year veteran will be plenty motivated after opposing quarterbacks went after him last season. The Steelers will help Taylor by no longer assigning him to shadow the No. 1 wide receiver – unless maybe when they play A.J. Green and the Bengals. Allen only needs to stay healthy to become a bona fide No. 1 cornerback. A high-ankle sprain set Allen back the first half of last season but he eventually won back his starting job and tied for the team lead with two interceptions.

Most significant addition: Richardson. The Steelers successfully gambled that the Arizona product would still be available when they picked in the fifth round. The 6-foot, 194-pounder has good size and is versatile enough that some teams evaluated Richardson as a safety prior to the draft. Richardson has a chance to play right away given the Steelers’ lack of unproven depth at cornerback.

Most significant loss: A year later the loss of Keenan Lewis still stings. Imagine how much different the position would look with Lewis and Allen as the Steelers’ long-term starters at cornerback. Lewis, who signed with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent, intercepted four passes in 2013. The Steelers’ cornerbacks combined for three interceptions last season. Ouch.

On outside looking in: Isaiah Green. The 5-10, 180-pounder spent a little more than half of the 2013 season on the 53-man roster and appeared in three games. The former undrafted free agent will be among those battling Richardson and Antwon Blake for two spots on the roster.

Hidden number: Thirty-one NFL players had more interceptions than the three the Steelers got from their cornerbacks last season.

Outlook: The Steelers bypassed a cornerback in the first round of the draft to take Ohio State linebacker Ryan Shazier. Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, meanwhile, went to the Bengals with the No. 24 overall pick. Steelers fans will keep a close eye on the player many though they would draft, especially since Dennard is now playing for a division rival. The Steelers are confident that players such as McCain and Blake can provide quality depth, but Allen is the only long-term starting cornerback on the roster right now. Time will be the ultimate arbiter as to whether the Steelers did enough this offseason to help themselves at cornerback.

Steelers draft review: 2009

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
PITTSBURGH -- The is the third in a series that reviews the Steelers’ drafts under general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin.

Next up is the 2009 draft:

Total picks: 9

Picks still with the team: 0

Best pick: WR Mike Wallace. The second of three third-round picks, Wallace made an immediate impact and he developed into one of the top deep threats in the NFL. Wallace had just over 4,000 receiving yards and 32 touchdown catches in four seasons in Pittsburgh and he made the Pro Bowl in 2011. His speed and production priced Wallace out of the Steelers’ range and he signed a five-year, $60 million contract with the Dolphins last year. The Steelers were wise not to overpay for Wallace and his loss helped them net three compensatory draft picks this year.

Worst pick: G Kraig Urbik. Urbik, the Steelers’ second pick -- and first one in the third round -- lasted just one season in Pittsburgh and didn’t suit up for a game his rookie season. What is puzzling is why the Steelers were so quick to give up on Urbik. He landed in Buffalo and has started the past three seasons for the Bills. Whether there was some disconnect between the scouts/front office evaluation of Urbik and that of the coaches the fact remains that Steelers got nothing out the 79th overall pick of the draft.

Best value pick: TE David Johnson. The Steelers’ final pick – and the 241st overall selection in the draft – contributed as a blocking tight end/H-back as well as on special teams before knee and elbow injuries derailed his final two seasons in Pittsburgh. Johnson, who recently signed a two-year contract with the Chargers, caught 22 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown for the Steelers.

Also of note: Defensive end Ziggy Hood may be the most dubious first-round pick the Steelers have made since Colbert joined the organization in 2000. The former Missouri star proved to be durable and his effort and commitment were never an issue. But Hood was miscast as a hold-the-point-of-attack defensive end after shooting gaps and getting up the field as a tackle in college. Hood recently signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Jaguars. ... The Steelers erred in letting cornerback Keenan Lewis, a third-round pick, get away in free agency last year. A late bloomer, Lewis has developed into a quality starter. Now with the Saints, Lewis is sorely missed on a team that has to get younger at cornerback and replace Ike Taylor in the starting lineup sooner rather than later.

Final analysis/grade: This is a tricky evaluation because the Steelers largely did a good job in picking players who could succeed at this level albeit in varying roles. The problem is they have nothing to show from this class other than the three compensatory draft picks they were awarded this year in part for losing Wallace and Lewis in free agency. Meanwhile, at least four players from this class project as starters – for other teams – in 2014. I will give the Steelers a "C" since they got contributions from a handful of players in this draft and maximized the pick they used on Wallace.
The Steelers have nine picks in the 2014 NFL draft after adding three compensatory selections based on free-agent losses last year.

The Steelers were awarded third-round, fifth-round and sixth-round picks Monday by the NFL. They effectively recovered the pick they traded last year when they dealt their 2014 third-round selection for the Browns’ fourth-round pick.

The Steelers used the pick to draft safety Shamarko Thomas.

The Steelers’ received the highest compensatory pick as their third-round selection is 97th overall. The other two picks they were awarded are 173rd and 215th overall, respectively.

Wide receiver Mike Wallace, cornerback Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall were among the players the Steelers lost via free agency last year.

The extra picks come at a good time for the Steelers.

General manager Kevin Colbert has said this is the deepest draft he has seen since he broke into the NFL, and the Steelers have to replenish a defense that is in transition. It's also a team that has needs on offense.

The Steelers have a pick in each of the seven rounds. They have two selections apiece in the fifth and sixth rounds of the draft.

CB Chris Owens visited Steelers

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers hosted veteran cornerback Chris Owens for a visit this week, according to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan.

Owens played 13 games last season, recording 58 tackles and 2 sacks. The 5-foot-9, 180-pounder also broke up three passes.

Owens played 12 games for the Browns before hurting his knee. The Dolphins signed the fifth-year veteran in December after the Browns released Owens following an injury settlement, and he played one game for Miami.

Owens has played for three NFL teams, including the Falcons, who took him in the third round of the 2009 draft, six picks ahead of former Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers need to add depth at cornerback and Owens, 27, would fit the profile of the kind of player they are looking to sign.

In other Steelers’ news:
  • ESPN.com Panthers writer David Newton reported that wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery's two-year deal with Carolina could be worth as much as $5 million. Good for Cotchery, but that price proved to be too far out of the Steelers’ range. Team president Art Rooney II told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that despite the loss of Cotchery and other free agents he is “happy with the progress” the Steelers have made. “I’m satisfied with the progress we've made in general to this date, the signings we've made,” Rooney said. "We have more work to do. It's early in the game as far as preseason preparations. I'm happy with the progress we've made so far.”
  • The Steelers were well represented at Notre Dame Pro Day on Thursday. Both general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin attended the workout for Irish draft prospects, according to Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm. Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III and defensive end Stephon Truitt could be targets for the Steelers early in the draft.
Here is the latest Steelers' mailbag. Questions I received but didn't answer top the list for next week's mailbag. I appreciate the great questions and, as always, keep them coming. And away we go ...

Steelers need to keep Jason Worilds

January, 31, 2014
Jan 31
PITTSBURGH -- Jason Worilds is soft-spoken and anything but the type to issue ultimatums.

But he has leverage following his breakout season in 2013 and impending free agency, and there is nothing unreasonable about the outside linebacker wanting assurances he has established himself as a starter before re-signing with the Steelers.

He was blocked from starting his first three seasons because of the presence of LaMarr Woodley and five-time Pro Bowler James Harrison. After the Steelers released Harrison when the two sides couldn't find common ground on a pay cut, they used the 17th overall pick of the 2013 NFL draft on Jarvis Jones.

Given all of this, it is understandable that Worilds wants clarity on where he stands before re-signing with the Steelers. He should get it in the form of the offer the Steelers extend to him during talks between the organization and Worilds' agents.

Those should start some time after the Super Bowl and will likely heat up at the NFL scouting combine in the latter part of February.

One thing that is clear: Worilds won't lack for suitors if he does test free agency.

Edge pass rushers are always coveted, and their value only increases as the NFL evolves into a pass-first league and elite quarterbacks assault the record books and put up video game-like numbers.

The choice the Steelers have to make between Worilds and Woodley isn't as simple as picking one or the other.

They wouldn't clear much cap room by cutting Woodley before June. Thus the Steelers would have to find a way to free up enough money to re-sign Worilds while also keeping Woodley's prohibitive contract on their books until after June 1.

And that is if the Steelers opt for Worilds over Woodley.

Take finances out of the equation and Worilds looks like the better long-term option at left outside linebacker.

Woodley, 29, hasn't been able to stay healthy since signing a six-year, $61.5 million in 2011, and the cumulative effect his injuries could have the seventh-year veteran on the down side of his career.

Worilds is three years younger and his best football appears to be ahead of him.

The Steelers made a mistake last year when they let a rising player in cornerback Keenan Lewis sign with the New Orleans Saints as an unrestricted free agent.

They should do everything they can to avoid making a similar miscalculation with Worilds.

Pittsburgh Steelers' mailbag

January, 25, 2014
Jan 25
Here is the latest Pittsburgh Steelers mailbag and thank you for all of the great questions. Those who sent questions that weren't answered they are at the top of the list for next week's mailbag. Please keep the questions coming and send them via Twitter to @ScottBrown_ESPN with the #steelersmail.

And away we go:


William Gay proves his worth to Steelers

October, 27, 2013
OAKLAND -- As if a trip across the country a week after the Pittsburgh Steelers slugged it out with the Baltimore Ravens isn’t bad enough, imagine if they had to lug a 1-5 record into the Coliseum.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Gay
Don Wright/AP PhotoSteelers WR William Gay breaks up a pass intended for Ravens WR Jacoby Jones in the second quarter of their Week 7 game.
Instead, the Steelers visit the Oakland Raiders today with a real chance to fight their way back from an 0-4 start.

They are 2-4, though if not for a couple of critical pass break-ups made by William Gay last Sunday, the Steelers would be going nowhere even faster than the perpetually rebuilding Raiders.

Gay saved two touchdowns, including one when he recovered after getting beaten by Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones and batting away an underthrown Joe Flacco pass.

And those weren’t the only plays by the seventh-year veteran that stood out when the Steelers watched tape of their 19-16 win against the Ravens.

“Ray Rice caught a ball out in the flat and Gay made the tackle,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “That was crucial because that was in the red zone. Gay has always been a solid tackler.”

That is why the Steelers re-signed Gay after he spent last season in Arizona.

Tackling the catch, as the Steelers call it, is critical in coordinator Dick LeBeau’s defense. Gay’s proficiency in that part of the game is why he has been playing over promising third-year man Cortez Allen in the Steelers’ base defense.

“He’s playing well, playing consistently and he played well in the Baltimore game,” LeBeau said of Gay.

More and more Steelers fans appear to be giving Gay his due, if grudgingly. At the very least, they are no longer blaming him for everything from Steelers' losses to traffic snarls on Pittsburgh’s major roads.

As much criticism as Gay endured during his first stint in Pittsburgh, the Steelers did not hesitate to bring him back last March when it became clear they would not be able to re-sign Keenan Lewis.

The Steelers signed Gay, whom they had selected in the fifth round of the 2007 draft, to a three-year contract just days after Arizona released him.

“Coach Mike (Tomlin) says often that your tape is your resume,” LeBeau said. “He had good tape when he was here. He had good tape when he was in Arizona. We knew he was a good man. I’m glad that Mike brought him back.”

Gay has turned out to be one of the better under-the-radar signings by any team.

He leads the Steelers with four passes defended and is fifth on the team with 28 tackles.

Gay stepped up when an ankle sprain sidelined Allen in the season opener and sidetracked the latter's development. He has never missed a game in his NFL career and leads all cornerbacks with 102 consecutive games played.

Yes, Gay has limitations, but he is dependable and durable, and it looks like Steelers fans are finally embracing him for what he is.

And not bashing him for what he isn’t.