When Arizona Cardinals cornerback William Gay was released last week, the immediate assumption was that the Pittsburgh Steelers, his team from 2007 until 2012 when he left in free agency, could be his home again.
Indeed, the Steelers confirmed on Monday that Gay is back in Pittsburgh, signing a three-year deal, the details of which aren't yet known. This brings with it questions about what Gay's role will be in his second tenure in Pittsburgh as well as what the future holds for current Steelers corner and soon-to-be unrestricted free agent Keenan Lewis.
While at first blush, it appears that Gay's return means the Steelers have given up trying to retain Lewis, that doesn't seem to be the team's plan. Bringing back Gay likely won't change the fact that Lewis is the Steelers' top free-agent priority, nor will it affect their efforts to re-sign him. Instead, Gay will provide affordable depth at the very least, and at the most, he'll be their starter in the nickel this year.
In 2012, Gay played on the left, right and in the slot for the Cardinals, making appearances in all 16 games and starting 15 of them. He played a total of 1,034 snaps, had a combined 57 tackles and two interceptions, gave up one touchdown and 726 total yards and defended three passes. Quarterbacks throwing his way averaged a rating of 80.0.
Those numbers are good, but they don't make him any better than any present Steelers starter, including Lewis, who replaced him last year. Lewis, who played 943 snaps in 2012, had 71 total tackles, and though he had no interceptions and gave up three touchdowns, he also defended 16 passes.
Lewis beat out both Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen to win the starting job last summer, and his performance in one season has earned him the right to keep it, as long as the Steelers can find the cash to give him a new contract.
Gay does provide some insurance in case this does not happen, but the point in signing him was not to replace Lewis as Lewis replaced him in 2012. Gay, instead, will be battling with Brown and Allen for the starting nickel job and potentially saving the Steelers money if he does so.
Both Brown and Allen are set to make $555,000 apiece in 2013—not a large amount of cash, to be sure, but enough to make a difference for a team that needs every penny it can to get far enough under the salary cap to make a reasonable offer to Lewis, take care of some of their restricted free agents and sign their 2013 rookie class.
His presence on the roster could also affect the statuses of younger corners, like DeMarcus Van Dyke and Josh Victorian, neither of whom could cost the Steelers much this year (Van Dyke is an exclusive rights free agent, while Victorian is set to make just $480,000 in 2013), but again, money saved is always welcome for the Steelers.
Aside from putting up solid numbers in 2012, Gay also provides the Steelers with other benefits, with reliability being a major one. The cornerback position suffered a number of injuries last season—Ike Taylor missed the final part of the year with an ankle fracture and Allen missed a game with a hip injury.
That makes Gay, who has never missed a game in his career even more attractive to the Steelers. He'll be able to start in the nickel (should he win that job) without concerns that he could miss time, and he'd also ostensibly be ready to step up and take over for Lewis or Taylor should one of them fall hurt.
Though the Steelers have a history of taking back former players after one-year absences—like Larry Foote, who spent 2010 with the Detroit Lions before returning, and cornerback Bryant McFadden, who came back in 2011 after a year with the Cardinals himself (and only appeared in three games). As such, it's not surprising that Gay joins them after one year away.
It doesn't mean, however, that Gay is back to retake the starting job that Lewis won last year or that the Steelers don't think they need to pay Lewis what he's worth. The return of Gay is more coincidental to Lewis' situation than a reaction to it.
Though Gay could be a regular contributor to the Steelers defense in 2013, he won't be battling with Lewis for the starting job on the left but instead with Allen and Brown to be the team's nickel corner. It's a smart, affordable re-signing that provides the Steelers with both depth and veteran experience, but to say that Gay is a threat to Lewis' status in Pittsburgh is entirely off the mark.
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