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Old 08-25-2009, 12:13 AM   #1
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Default Harris: Steelers' youngsters trailing pedigrees

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Harris: Steelers' youngsters trailing pedigrees

By John Harris
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Keenan Lewis is discovering that the NFL is sometimes known for being Not For Long.

Lewis is a rookie cornerback in a league that devours its young.

After making a strong impression early in training camp, Lewis' play leveled off. He entered last week's preseason game against Washington third on the depth chart at left corner, and he did nothing against the Redskins to improve his status.

It hasn't helped that Lewis carries the additional baggage of having been compared to right cornerback Ike Taylor by defensive backs coach Ray Horton shortly after the Steelers selected the Oregon State product in the third round of the NFL Draft.

"You would probably compare him to Ike," Horton told reporters. "He's 6-foot, 200 pounds and runs a 4.55 (40-yard dash). He'll be able to run up the field with men just like Ike. You have to stop the run and make (teams) throw the ball and he is a big, physical corner, a la Ike."

Not only was Horton's comparison unsolicited, it was unfair to Lewis. Horton appeared to overlook an important mandate handed down from director of football operations Kevin Colbert regarding high expectations for draft picks.

"If we take a player at a certain point, that player is not saying he is that value, we are," Colbert said prior to this year's draft. "If that player fails, then we failed to evaluate him correctly. If a player gets picked in the second round and he doesn't contribute, that's on us because we were the ones who said he could contribute."

Taking Colbert's analogy one more step, it will difficult enough for Lewis to make the Steelers, much less be compared with Taylor, who is among the fastest players in the league.

In the NFL, speed and reaction time are the difference between being a shutdown corner and a nickel corner.

Sure, Lewis is a big corner. But there are a lot of big corners.

However, there are few big corners who also rank among the fastest players in the league who are as accomplished as Taylor. And even fewer who can also play lockdown corner and cover receivers one-on-one all over the field, as Taylor can.

Because of his impressive size, Lewis may eventually be able to play man-to-man in certain packages such as red-zone defense, where there isn't as much ground to cover and his speed won't be as much of an issue. Right now, Lewis seems more suited for nickel corner.

Lewis' draft status will be taken under advisement when the Steelers determine their 53-man roster. Considering he was a third-round pick, it would be an upset if Lewis didn't make the team. The same can also be said for last year's third-round pick, Bruce Davis, who is third on the depth chart at right outside linebacker behind James Harrison and undrafted free agent Patrick Bailey despite disappointing play.

Yet another high draft pick with something to prove is receiver Limas Sweed, last year's No. 2 selection.

The Steelers want Sweed to take the third receiver's job, but his coaches aren't going to give it to him. Going into the Washington game, it was assumed Sweed would line up with the first-team when the offense went to a three-receiver set. Instead, rookie third-round pick Mike Wallace got the call.

Sweed has a flair for making "splash" plays, such as his 17-yard reception against Washington. But a third-down drop earlier in the same game showed that he still has to become more consistent and make the routine catch as well.

To be sure, being a high draft pick doesn't guarantee Lewis a roster spot, just an opportunity. That's why the NFL is sometimes known for being Not for Long.

John Harris can be reached at jharris@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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