There is no doubt about what is the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ most important priority entering this off-season. No, it has absolutely nothing to do with Mike Wallace or even Todd Haley. Instead, the Steelers must make as much effort as possible to re-sign starting cornerback Keenan Lewis. Lewis is entering free agency at the end of his rookie contract after becoming a starter during his final year. Not only did Lewis start, but he grew into one of the best cornerbacks in the league as the season wore on. At just 26 years of age(27 at the start of next season), Lewis also has youth on his side with a wealth of experience in Dick LeBeau’s system. There is no doubt the Steelers would miss him if he departed.
Such is the nature of free agency, Lewis is not certain to return and general manager Kevin Colbert has already ruled out using the franchise tag. With cornerback being one of the most difficult positions in the league for teams to fill, Lewis’ signature on the open market should be worth an awful lot. Therefore, even though they will desperately work to bring him back, the Steelers need to have a plan B in place should he move on. Third year defensive back Cortez Allen has massive potential, glimpses of which he has already shown, but in today’s league you need more than two quality players at the cornerback position. If Lewis leaves, the Steelers will only have two in Allen and veteran Ike Taylor.
Recent history says that the Steelers have been able to find quality pieces for their secondary in the draft outside of the first round. However, the Steelers have a very particular type of cornerback these days, having departed from a zone heavy defense to more rangy man cover cornerbacks. If they cannot identify a handful who they can realistically target in this draft, then they will look to free agency in order to acquire a second starter.
That could lead them to Florida, where cornerback Sean Smith is currently at odds with the Miami Dolphins during the team’s contract negotiations. Smith reportedly wants a six-year deal worth $43 million. The Dolphins don’t want to pay him anything near that seemingly. Now, at that price, the Steelers would love to bring Lewis back but would likely not invest in Smith. Smith isn’t as good as Lewis, but he does have similar potential and plays the game in almost exactly the same style. Both are physical specimens who are better at preventing the opposition from catching the ball opposed to coming away with it themselves.
Smith is one year younger than Lewis and has extensively more starting experience, albeit not with the Steelers. In order for him to land in Pittsburgh, he would have to take less money than he is currently asking the Dolphins for. That seemingly creates a scenario where it is impossible for the Steelers to sign Smith, but when you consider what could happen on the open market, Smith may be forced to settle for less. The Dolphins and Smith appear set to sour on each other completely, while the free agent market of cornerbacks offers alternatives Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Brent Grimes, Stanford Routt, Antoine Cason, Quentin Jammer, Nate Clements, Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox, Aqib Talib, Adam Jones, Terence Newman, Sam Shields, Leodis McKelvin and Lewis. While he is a talented, young player, it’s conceivable that Smith could be towards the bottom of that totem pole when it comes to interest on the open market.
Free agency can bloat the price of some players, but it also serves as a reality check for others. If Smith tests the open market and the Dolphins give ‘his’ money to another free agent or draft his replacement, he will be looking for a new home on a cheaper deal. At that point, the Steelers could come into contention for his signature. The Steelers typically don’t make big free agent moves, but they do often make astute ones. Smith would be an astute addition because he offers the team an experienced starter in the short term, with the potential to be a long-term style fit in the defense.