When the New Orleans Saints signed unrestricted free agent cornerback Keenan Lewis to a five-year, $26 million deal on Thursday, March 14, the team broke up a period of silence almost unknown to the franchise in the free-agency period, at least since Sean Payton came to town.
In bringing Lewis home—he is a native of New Orleans—the Saints made an equally unusual move in choosing quality over quantity. The past few offseasons, Mickey Loomis simply threw money at whoever was bright and shiny, with seemingly little regard for whether the incoming player could actually play effective and efficient football for the Saints.
That mentality led to the Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin debacles. In what seems contrary, but is actually the result of the same kind of logic, key players such as Tracy Porter—of whom Lewis resembles in many regards—and Robert Meachem were allowed to leave via free agency last offseason.
Since then, the team acquired veteran tight end Benjamin Watson—another move which reeks of quality—and brought in veteran corner Nnamdi Asomugha for a visit to please new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan.
But the move at question is the initial one made in the free-agency period to acquire Lewis. In determining whether the Lewis signing is a good move or not, there is much to consider.
Lewis’ age, size, quickness, technique, productivity, durability and scheme fit are all integral factors to consider before coming to a final conclusion. In my quest to find out what kind of football player Lewis happens to be, I quickly became enthralled and wondered why I did not have him on my radar coming into the offseason.
Keenan Lewis was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers 96th overall (the final selection of the third round) in the 2009 draft out of Oregon State. As the Steelers do with the majority of their draft picks, the team stashed Lewis on the bench for the majority of his first two seasons in the league.
The Steelers’ approach to drafting and player development is beyond genius, though, as it causes them to hardly ever miss on a player. The team knows exactly what it’s looking for in a prospect. The franchise then further develops that player until he’s ready to contribute, at which point he is ready to become a solid, or better than average starter.
Lewis did not officially become a starting corner for the Steelers until his third season, (2011) but he did play in every game. In 2012, Lewis had his breakout season—starting all 16 games and standing well above the rest of the crowded cornerback pack in a league that now sees passes on more than 60 percent of plays from scrimmage.
Though he did not record an interception on the season, his 23 pass breakups proved he was one of the few in the league who could realistically claim the title of “shutdown corner.”
The New Orleans native will begin the 2013 season as a 27-year-old veteran with limited miles accumulated in the league. His plight should remind Saints fans of Jabari Greer, who came with a similar pedigree when he signed with the Saints in the 2009 offseason.
Unlike Greer, though, Lewis is a relatively big corner. At 6’0”, 198 pounds, he is instantly the biggest corner the Saints possess—though if the team is able to persuade Nnamdi Asomugha to sign, Lewis would lose that title as quickly as he gained it.
Lewis uses his size to his advantage on the field as a physical corner. It did not take four games to discover that trait. I watched four, nonetheless, to ensure I had an accurate grip on Lewis’ abilities. Below is a more in-depth scouting report, based on the All-22 film.
It is clear that Lewis feels one of his greatest advantages as a corner is his size and physicality. As a result, he loves to get up in the face of the opposing receiver from the instant the two line up across the line of scrimmage from one another.
Most often Lewis will quickly get his hands on his opponent upon the ball being snapped. He is unafraid to grab the receiver, hold him and bang him around (in the NFL most anything goes up to five yards). Still, he is athletic and cautious enough to not lose his balance and get thrown out of the play—in four games, he only had it happen one time.
That balance is one reason he’s able to keep his feet, swivel his hips and run with the receiver. Most often he plays a slight trail technique, hoping to bait the quarterback into an unwise throw. Even with that technique he never loses the receiver and always remains in position to make a play on a throw intended for his man.
Though he did not face the situation often, Lewis was asked a few times to play the slot receiver. Because of his quick feet and smooth hips, Lewis looked every bit the part of an effective nickel corner.
If it isn’t clear already, Lewis loves to play on the edge. In other words, he gets as close to the acceptable line of physical contact as possible without being flagged for pass interference. This is his modus operandi on most attempted passes his way. He was flagged a few times in the four games, but he could have easily been called for five more penalties.
It’s just the nature of the way he plays the position. It is also part of the reason he had those 23 passes defensed. So is the fact that he has exceptional ball skills in man-to-man coverage, when he is in position to make a play on the ball.
His only real detriment is that he will often get turned around when in soft man coverage. He can be beaten by double-moves because his eyes start to stare at the receiver’s feet or head instead of the midsection as he’s been taught.
What grade do you give the Saints' signing of Keenan Lewis?
While Lewis is one of the best man-to-man corners in the NFL, he is not one of the best in zone coverage. He simply lacks the instincts to read the quarterback’s eyes and close on the football quickly.
He also tends to read the receiver nearest his zone, instead of reading the entirety of the route concept. Thus he’ll take a receiver who is running into another defender’s zone, thereby leaving a receiver wide open in the zone he left unoccupied.
The truth is that playing Lewis in zone coverage is a waste of his talent. He did improve as the year progressed and began to show an ability to stay in his zone and then fly to the football once it was released.
But other than to give the offense a different look on occasion, it makes little sense to ask Lewis to play zone coverage.
Playing the Run
It is a misnomer to assume that a team's run defense is dependent only on the front seven. If that were true, Roman Harper would not have been paid as handsomely as he was three offseasons ago. Harper, of course, made his living based on being an “in-the-box” safety.
Similarly, Jabari Greer became a fine tackler and hard edge corner in the past few seasons before leaving behind some of that identity after suffering from injuries all season long in 2012. The point is this: Lewis’ value is increased by his efforts in the run game.
What he does well is set the edge. He has been well coached to keep his outside shoulder outside. By doing so, the runner cannot get to the sideline and is thus forced back to the interior of the defense. Lewis really attacks the edge when he is singled away in zone coverage without a receiver to his side.
He comes flying in the way a safety would. It is nice to see a corner play the run so aggressively.
That being said, he is not the best tackler the world has ever seen. In the open field, he tends to lose his balance and tries to tackle with his upper body instead of breaking down. Even near the sidelines he tends to lunge for tackles instead of breaking down and driving through the ball-carrier.
Nevertheless, Lewis is an aggressive player against the run who is unafraid to lower his shoulder and make a hard, yet safe hit. He is unlikely to ever face a fine or suspension for a hit because he uses proper technique. Yet, because of his size and overall physicality he might knock a guy out cold. That’s the perfect combination.
Other Factors and Conclusions
For much of the offseason I had been clamoring for the Saints to consider drafting University of Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant for two primary reasons: 1. He is a cocky little dude who teetered the line of brash and confident. My argument is that that is exactly the kind of guy a team should desire for the cornerback position. A quick view of the league shows the most successful players at the position have that sort of attitude.
2. Trufant excelled as a physical man-to-man corner who beat the snot out of the opposing receiver at the line of scrimmage, clutched and grabbed and was unafraid of possibly earning a pass interference penalty—instead concerning himself only with not allowing the receiver to catch the pass.
Interestingly, Lewis fits that description to a T. In fact, it is almost as if the two are the same exact player.
Now that the Saints have acquired Lewis, my dream first-round draft pick would be Trufant to pair with Lewis, and the team can become Seattle East. They will have with two big, physical corners who shut opposing offenses down less with a dominant pass rush (though based on free agency it appears Seattle will try improve in that area as well next season) and more with dominance on the back end.
Even if that does not happen, it appears clear that the Saints made a very wise investment in acquiring the hometown kid, Lewis, for roughly $5 million per year—including a paltry $2.25 million against the cap in 2013, according to Spotrac.com.
As I mentioned in this article right around the announcement of Rob Ryan becoming the Saints’ defensive coordinator, the Saints are going to play mostly man-to-man schemes in the secondary with their corners.
Ryan is going to be aggressive and trust his corners (hence the reason he is pushing for Asomugha—a player he trusts). As already stated above, Lewis is a player Ryan will learn quickly to trust as one to hold up on the back end because of his exceptional abilities to lock down almost any receiver he lines up against.
No matter how good the corners are, help will still be needed from the safety positions, and the front seven must put some pressure on opposing quarterbacks. If those operations are successful, Lewis will end up as one of Mickey Loomis’ best offseason acqusitions.
Simply put, sometimes quality is better than quantity.
Overall Grade: A-