Harris: Taylor loss could cripple Steelers

John Harris
| Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011

Get to know Keenan Lewis. He has 12 career tackles and no interceptions in his two NFL seasons. He's a candidate to start at right cornerback if the Steelers don't re-sign unrestricted free agent Ike Taylor.

So are nickel back William Gay and Crezdon Butler, who has one tackle in four games.

That's the risk the Steelers are taking in their game of chicken with Taylor. In declining to make Taylor a transition player by Thursday's deadline, the Steelers will allow him to enter the free agent market if they are unable to sign him by March 3.

The Steelers no longer have exclusive rights to Taylor, who has never missed a game because of injury. As a result, the Steelers will be forced to negotiate against other teams.

The AFC champs traditionally offer contracts to key players before they enter the final year of their existing deal. It's a strategy that allows them to set the pay scale for their free agents.

Deviating from that strategy might cost them one of their best players.

The Steelers rarely lose control during contract negotiations. This appears to be one of those occasions. Taylor is represented by Joel Segal, whose client list includes Michael Vick, Reggie Bush, Chris Johnson, Santonio Holmes, LaRon Landry, Percy Harvin and Steelers Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey.

In 2010, Business Insider Law Review recognized Segal as the ninth-most powerful sports agent in America. Segal was one of only two agents to represent multiple first-round draft picks each year from 2006-10. Segal is so good that he got a six-year, $54 million contract for cornerback DeAngelo Hall with the Washington Redskins after the Oakland Raiders released Hall less than a year into a seven-year, $70 million deal.

"This is a good time for me to be a free agent," Taylor said. "Teams (have seen) my tape. They know my consistency. What I'm doing now, I've been doing for a long time. People are finally paying attention."

The price tag for Taylor increased this week when Oakland re-signed little-known cornerback Stanford Routt for $31.5 million over three years. The deal includes $20 million guaranteed in the first two years.

"I think the front office has taken him for granted and thinks it can get a hometown discount," said Dave-Te' Thomas, the director of operations for Scouting Services Inc., a company used by 27 of the NFL's 32 teams. "Let Taylor walk, and watch the (New York) Giants, (Houston) Texans, Carolina (Panthers) and New Orleans (Saints) get in a bidding war for him."

Thomas, who also is the league's official biographer and authors the NFL Draft Report, introduced Taylor to scouts coming out of Louisiana-Lafayette. Thomas' studies of every team and his assessment of Taylor's game and its relation to the Steelers tells him the franchise made a mistake when it permitted Taylor to become a free agent.

"Who outside of Darrelle Revis, Charles Woodson and a handful of others can say they have the physical presence in the secondary that Pittsburgh had with Taylor?'' said Thomas, who also mentioned the Arizona Cardinals and New England Patriots as possible suitors. "The success of the linebackers is evident, but having Taylor to cover the underneath areas and play within the box as those linebackers penetrated the line of scrimmage actually gave Pittsburgh a fifth linebacker on the field.

"Without Taylor, looking at their present roster, you have a big guy in Lewis, but honestly he's better suited in the zone as a nickel or safety than (outside). Gay and (Bryant) McFadden• Both proved how lacking they are in the bump-and-run against Green Bay in the Super Bowl.

"With the size of the receivers in this league, you need an intimidator in the secondary. Yes, the media loves interceptions, and Taylor has hands like he hits — like a rock — but his ability to punish the opponent's top receiver is what he brings to the table. If you look at the cornerbacks in this year's draft, I dare anyone to find me someone that can step in and replace Taylor, especially right away, considering where the Steelers will pick in the first round (No. 31 overall)."

Taylor defended Green Bay's Greg Jennings so well early in Super Bowl XLV that the Packers were forced to move Jennings inside to get him open. Even though Taylor normally plays on the outside, the coaching staff eventually moved Taylor into the slot opposite Jennings because the Steelers didn't have another cornerback capable of covering Jennings.

By doing that, the Steelers took away Taylor's ability to blitz from the outside, as he did against the New York Jets in the AFC Championship Game.

If Taylor leaves, and it's a possibility, the Steelers not only will lose their best cover cornerback against outside receivers but also their top cover man in the slot. It would be a blow for a team without a legitimate replacement.

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