When Tuesday's start of free agency approached, it seemed to be consensus that the Pittsburgh Steelers' biggest priority was to secure cornerback Keenan Lewis to a long-term deal. The way the Steelers cleared cap space by releasing linebacker James Harrison and restructuring four other contracts hinted that at least Lewis would be among their re-signings.
Though it sounds like an expensive deal, according to Dave Bryan of SteelersDepot.com, it was one the Steelers could have afforded themselves. The breakdown of the money is such that the contract would have cost the Steelers just $1.72 million in cap space this year—a completely reasonable amount considering the team is presently around $13 million under the salary cap (h/t Spotrac).
So what happened? Well, according to Lewis' Twitter feed, the Steelers didn't offer him a new deal at all—not to begin with, and not after he had been courted by the Saints. It appears that Lewis was never the high-priority re-signing we all thought he was heading into the new league year.
It's possible that the Steelers were planning on giving Lewis a new deal, but when William Gay was released by the Arizona Cardinals, their cornerback course changed. The Steelers immediately picked up Gay, who had been with Pittsburgh prior to his one-year stint with the Cardinals. The thought was that he'd serve as depth at corner and compete with Cortez Allen for the starting nickel job, but instead it appears the Steelers had other plans in mind for Gay, Allen and Lewis.
Allen will now be a starter on the outside along with Ike Taylor, with Gay likely bumped ahead of Curtis Brown in the nickel. The moment Gay became available, clearly the Steelers became far more comfortable with the idea of Lewis playing elsewhere in 2013.
Allen isn't a downgrade from Lewis, by any means. The two competed in last year's training camp for that starting outside job (which previously belonged to Gay) and Allen certainly held his own against Lewis and was only slightly edged out.
In 2012, Allen played 563 snaps, allowing 45 completions on 77 targets for 448 yards and 157 yards after the catch. He gave up just one touchdown and led the Steelers' corners in both interceptions, with two, and opposing quarterback rating, with 68.5.
Though Lewis gave up fewer receptions—52.7 percent compared to Allen's 58.4—he had no picks and gave up three touchdowns in his 943 snaps. The two are very similar corners in terms of talent and playing style, so it's more of a lateral move for the Steelers to go from Lewis to Allen.
So while it may have been initially a little shocking that the Steelers let Lewis go without even an offer, the Gay signing probably should have tipped us all off earlier on. It wasn't just depth and it wasn't just competition for the nickel job—it was a way to let Lewis go and spend a little less money.
It's not to say that the Steelers initially weren't interested in retaining Lewis, but once Gay hit the market, their priorities shifted.