The Pittsburgh Steelers generated some buzz on Monday when they signed a free-agent cornerback to a three-year deal. No, the deal wasn’t with Keenan Lewis—possibly the team’s most important free agent—but rather William Gay.
This left many fans angry, as they believed that the signing of Gay meant that the Steelers were no longer going to pursue signing Lewis to a long-term deal.
This is not the case at all.
Gay wasn’t signed to replace Lewis, but rather to add depth to a defensive backfield that struggled with injuries at the end of last season.
No matter how bad fans believe Gay is, he is actually a solid nickelback and will provide valuable veteran depth behind the Steelers’ top cornerbacks. He is a much more reliable option than players such as Curtis Brown, DeMarcus Van Dyke and Josh Victorian.
But Gay is a backup and will not influence whether or not the Steelers will sign Lewis.
Lewis is the Steelers’ top free-agent priority, but that does not mean they will get a deal done prior to the start of free agency on March 12th. In fact, general manager Kevin Colbert indicated that he will let the market dictate any potential contract offers to the Steelers' own free agents.
If Lewis receives what the Steelers deem to be “fair” offers from other teams, they will likely match or do slightly better to retain Lewis.
This would be the ideal scenario for the Steelers.
The Steelers would allow the market to dictate a lower cost than what Lewis may hope for and they would be able to retain an up-and-coming cornerback who was second in the league in passes defended last season.
Is it realistic that Lewis does not get blown away with an offer in free agency after such a successful 2012 season? Absolutely.
While Lewis had 23 passes defended, he also had no interceptions. In fact, he only has one interception in four years in the league. Last season was also the first that Lewis even looked like a viable cornerback.
Prior to his 71 tackles and 23 passes defended in 2012, Lewis only had 59 tackles, six passes defended and one interception in 29 games.
But as with any player, it may only take one season for a team to get infatuated with Lewis. He could receive a large contract offer. If this is the case, the Steelers probably won’t try to compete and will allow him to walk.
While it will hurt the secondary to allow such a young, talented player to leave after a solid season, the Steelers would by no means be doomed.
Not only do they have Gay as insurance to play the nickel role, they also have a very good-looking young cornerback in Cortez Allen.
Allen has been flashing potential ever since his rookie year. He could be ready for a breakout season if he is provided with the opportunity to start.
Playing primarily the nickel role in 2012, Allen was outstanding with 55 tackles, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. He has shown more playmaking ability at the cornerback position than any member of the Steelers in recent memory.
Allen would be in for some growing pains as he transitions from a role player to a full-time starter, but he is more than ready to step in as a starter if Lewis departs in free agency, and the Steelers know this.
But in the end, it will be the open market that will dictate Lewis’ status as a member of the Steelers.
A massive contract offer means that he will be taking the first flight out of Pittsburgh, but an offer that the Steelers consider to be fair market value will leave the decision to Lewis—stay with what he is familiar with or look for a change of scenery.
Whatever decision Lewis makes, the Steelers will move on. They would love to have him back, but if they can’t retain him, they will be in good hands with Allen—maybe even better hands.