The 2014 season was brutal for the Saints at the cornerback position. What I'm trying to say is, all of the Saints cornerbacks played terribly, horribly, horrifyingly bad last season, without a single exception. Oh I can already hear some of you saying: hey man, how about Keenan "Westbank" Lewis? At least he did his job right? Didn't he like, shut down his side of the field of something?
Lewis, as is the case for many good (and sometimes great) players at his position, completely enjoyed the gift of the "benefit of the doubt" in a less than lackluster 2014 season, all because of his very good showing in 2013 (his first year with the Saints).
In 2013, Keenan Lewis came home to New Orleans via free agency, after playing for the Pittsburgh Steelers who selected him 96 overall out of Oregon State in round three of the 2009 NFL draft. Lewis proceeded to have the best season of his National Football League career. That year, Pro Football Focus (PFF) ranked Lewis as the 27th cornerback out of 110 in the entire NFL. He had a +7.2 score, ahead of the likes of Walter Thurmond (Seattle), Brandon Browner (Seattle), Jimmy Smith (Baltimore), Aqib Talib (New England) just to name a few. Lewis' strength was definitely the pass coverage aspect of the position, in which PFF had him as the 16th best cornerback in the league (+8.2).
Even more impressive is how consistent Lewis was in 2013. Here's a look at his week by week performances two seasons ago:
Keenan Lewis 2013 Week by Week Defensive Rating (Courtesy of PFF)
What we see on this chart is that Lewis was remarkably consistent in 2013, but more importantly, he recorded only six games with negative grades (only two with significantly negative grades), as opposed to 11 games with positive grades (four with significantly positive grades). His season's highlights included a game vs. Carolina in week 14, in which he recorded his highest grade of the season (+2.8) while holding usual Saints tormentor wide receiver Steve Smith Sr to only six receptions for 49 yards and a touchdown. Another stellar performance was the Wild Card playoff game against Philadelphia, where Lewis held Eagles' number one wide receiver DeSean Jackson without a catch well into the third quarter, before the Saints cornerback had to leave the game with a concussion. If one just looked at the 2013 season, then one would think the Saints made an excellent decision in signing Keenan Lewis to be their top cornerback for years to come.
However, what makes a great player is not only the fact that he can impact the game through his outstanding play, but more importantly the fact that he can do it week in and week out, year and year out. For Keenan Lewis, 2014 was no repeat of 2013, and not only that, it wasn't even close. The Saints' defense as a whole took nosedive in 2014. From a top 10 unit in 2013, their ranking plummeted to next to last in the NFL. However, although football is a team sport and the productivity (or lack thereof) of one unit can impact another, there a still metrics to judge the performance of a given player on sequence where his own play and effort can make a difference or not.
From 27th in 2013, Lewis' overall PFF ranking fell to 98th in 2014 (out of 108 cornerbacks that took at least 300 snaps). In the pass coverage part of the game, usually his strong suit, Lewis recorded a -7.8 grade (92nd) in 2014, from 16th in 2013. As they say, pictures speak louder than words, so take a look:
Keenan Lewis 2014 Week by Week Defensive Rating (Courtesy of PFF)
Last season, Lewis had 11 games with a negative grade, including a whopping eight games with a significantly negative rating. He recorded only four games with positive grades, however when he played well, he was excellent. Most notably in a week nine victory at Carolina, in which he held rookie wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin to two catches (on 10 targets) for 18 yards and no touchdown.
In 2014, the lowlights were more the norm unfortunately, as Lewis was repeatedly exploited in pass coverage, starting in week one against the Falcons' Julio Jones, in week eight against the Packers' Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb and a painful week 15 matchup vs. Alshon Jeffery in Chicago, where Lewis struggled mightily despite the Saints' win.
For their team's sake, the Saints have to be hoping and praying that Lewis' bad play in 2014 was partially due to the many lower body injuries he suffered during the season. Indeed, Lewis was often hurt last year and frequently appeared on the injury list. But New Orleans has a crucial decision to make at cornerback, with free agency and the draft looming. How much do they pay a free agent cornerback if they are not very confident in Lewis being a true "number one corner?" How high do they reach for a cornerback in the draft if the free agency market isn't very kind to them? Is cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste ever going to live up to his second round pick selection in last year's draft after "redshirting" all of 2014? If you were the Saints front office what would you do about the cornerback position?
The offseason of infinite questions is upon us and upon the New Orleans Saints. Getcha popcorn ready!