One season, two very different sets of circumstances for two high school teammates who came to the Steelers in 2009.
Mike Wallace was a bona fide star, a Pro Bowl receiver in 2011 offered tens of millions of dollars by the team he turned down in 2012. Keenan Lewis reached nickel back status in his third season, playing only in passing situations. The team offered him nothing but the required one-year tender as a restricted free agent in 2012.
Today, they are poised to become unrestricted free agents, and Lewis might even find himself in as good a position as his former classmate at O. Perry Walker High School in New Orleans. Lewis went from obscure backup cornerback to having such a good season in his first as a starter that he should be among the top handful of cornerbacks available in the 2013 free-agent market that opens March 12.
Lewis played for $1.26 million last season, a middle tender from the Steelers compared to a top tender of $2.7 million Wallace earned. Some team could have signed Lewis as a restricted free agent and given the Steelers a third-round pick as compensation. No one offered him a multiple-year contract to stay or leave, not the way the Steelers did with Wallace. Lewis is OK with that because he would not have attracted the kind of deal he will this year.
"I didn't want a contract in 2012," Lewis said Wednesday from his New Orleans home. "I was just a nickel back. I probably would have told them to hold up on the contract anyway because I wanted to really establish myself as a starting cornerback.
"I didn't want nickel-back money, I wanted starter money."
Lewis left his exit interview with coach Mike Tomlin on New Year's Day feeling good about the team's desire to sign him to a new contract.
"I'm hoping they do something so I can get back," said Lewis, who led the NFL in passes defensed. "They said they wanted me to come back."
Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert is famous for his consistent reply to questions as to which free agents he wants to keep: All of them. They never do, of course. But Lewis is young, 27 in May, and looking like someone who can continue to partner with Taylor, 33 in May, and then succeed him as their top corner. It has been quite some time since the Steelers could count on two good cornerbacks and, with Cortez Allen playing the nickel, they look to have three.
Lewis first must heal from a sprained medial collateral ligament that will not require surgery. He predicted he will start running in a month.
Tomlin, Lewis said, told him that he blossomed in 2012. "He basically said I became a true professional, how I went about my business watching tape, my confidence grew and proving I could play. He figures I can be one of the best in the league. Now I know exactly what to work on. My goal is to be compared to the best corners, the Ike Taylors and Darrelle Revises."
Tomlin also told him the areas in which he needs to improve, catching the ball the major one. Tomlin likely told that to all the cornerbacks because they intercepted only three of the lowly team total of 10. Cortez Allen had two, Taylor one, Lewis none.
Veteran safety Will Allen noticed a big difference in Lewis the past two seasons. "I think he has built a lot of confidence. He is playing the ball a lot better. He has gotten better on his press technique. ... He is tall, long and fast. He has all the tangible things to be a great cornerback."
Lewis credits secondary coach Carnell Lake for helping him turn his game around. Lake joined the staff in 2011, and the pass defense has ranked No. 1 in both of his seasons. "Coach Lake got there, and he helped me out tremendously, stayed after work, watched tape with me. My career took off from there. The game started to slow down."
The free-agent game will speed up soon enough, and though Lewis said he loves playing for the Steelers, the Rooneys, Tomlin, Lake, etc., he also naturally wants to earn what he can.
"I want what I feel I deserve. I'm not trying to ask for way more. If they can work out a good deal with my agent, I'll be here. I'll always give them top priority because they're the team that drafted me.
"Some teams will try to speculate how much I should get. That's what [my agent is] for. I'm not going to speculate on $20 million, I'm not going to speculate on $50 million. I'll let him work the numbers out from what I put on tape and my ability."
The season has ended for the Steelers, but the season of signing players to futures contracts has just begun.
The Steelers signed six players to contracts for the 2013 season, players who were either not on teams or on their practice squads at the end of the season. They signed offensive linemen Joe Long and Justin Cheadle, wide receivers Derek Moye and Bert Reed, and cornerback Isiah Green. All five had spent time on the Steelers practice squad in 2012.
They also signed Pittsburgh native Ross Ventrone, a defensive back. He spent portions of his rookie season in 2010 and in 2011 with the Patriots active roster and practice squad. New England released him during last training camp, and he was not on a roster last season.
Each NFL team's roster can rise to 90 when its season ends.Steelers - mobilehome
For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published January 3, 2013 5:00 AM