Article Title: Keith Lewis is our darkhorse
It was the 107th civil war between the Oregon State University Beavers and the Oregon Ducks of which one athlete from both schools would eventually adorn the uniform of the red and gold of the San Francisco 49ers. Linebacker Richard Seigler would be drafted in the fourth round as a Beaver and free safety Keith Lewis would be drafted as the 198th overall pick in the sixth round of the 2004 NFL draft.
Just prior to the draft these two athletes talked and walked smack against each other in this state’s annually anticipated civil war between the two colleges. Every player and every fan looks forward to this game as it defines the state in every category, from gender to race and every other imaginable occupation.
Both schools provide great resources towards promoting and creating the hype this game always manufactures between both teams in which players and their relatives rise to the expected confrontation.
Beaver linebacker Richard Seigler chided the Duck populace in that he stated: “It was the last time to hop on the Beaver bandwagon that is headed to San Diego for greater glories in the future.”
But free safety Duck Keith Lewis added yet another twist when he wore a burnt-orange T-shirt that read “Oregon State Beavers,” and stated: “I got it from the clearance rack, after the game,” the loquacious Lewis said with a grin. “For peanuts, and a couple of quarters.”
This was after the Oregon Ducks defeated the Oregon State Beavers 34-20 in front of 58,102 fans at Autzen Stadium. This was the kind of chemistry and competitive spirit that these two juggernauts produced whenever a confrontation was played out for an end result.
Seigler and Lewis although on opposite sides of the field yield an incredible drive to excel at all that they do and inevitably compelled the San Francisco 49ers to warrant them strong consideration in drafting both of them this year.
Just after the 2003 season it was anybody’s guess as to what was to happen with free safety Keith Lewis. He made Second-team All-Pac 10 Conference as a choice and started every game at free safety for the Ducks, finishing second on the team wit 86 tackles (59 solos), including two stops for losses of 5-yards.
He intercepted three passes for 31-yards in returns and deflected ten passes total. He was able to block three kicks (all in consecutive games), gained 33-yards on a pair of blocked punt returns (16.5 avg.) and also had a 22-yard kickoff return.
Drafting free safety Keith Lewis would ultimately lead to the releasing of veteran safety Zack Bronson. He would be the 49ers last major roster move occurring right after the mandated June 1st deadline.
What was really funny about the move was the fact that the 49ers had just recently signed him to an extension after the 2001 season in which they let go Lance Schulters another high profile safety that eventually signed for more money with the Tennessee Titans. Zack Bronson then became the main man in the secondary and played the role fittingly except for reoccurring injuries that robbed him from the lineup on far too a consistent basis.
After moving into the 49er starting lineup as an un-drafted free agent who came to the 49ers out of McNeese State, where he was a four-year starter and three-time NCAA Division I-AA All-American in 1997 he made his mark felt one day at a time on the 49er brain trust.
After a breakout 2001 season, in which he manufactured a career-high seven interceptions and played at a Pro Bowl level, the San Francisco 49ers felt compelled o reward him with a five-year, $10.5 million contract extension that also included a $2 million dollar signing bonus.
But the greatest and most evident reason as to his release was the durability concerns that arose after he was made a permanent part of the starting lineup in 2000. Since that time he has missed 24 starts due to injury since then, including four last season and 11 in 2002.
What some of you may not remember is that Bronson served as the primary back-up and nickel safety behind Merton Hanks a legendary All-Pro veteran of the 49er secondary. Since then Bronson has battled a variety of injuries the first being a neck injury and ending with a broken foot.
Releasing Zack Bronson after June 1st saved the 49er organization $1.75 million, Bronson’s scheduled 2004 salary. He will continue to haunt the 49ers by counting against the cap this year in the sum of $573,750 dollars and $1.15 million against the team’s cap in 2005.
Had he not had such injuries that limited his appearances to just 17 after 2001, he probably would’ve been resigned. But the money became an issue, as the draft choices need to be signed by the end of training camp.
Creating salary cap room and becoming financially healthy became a purging of the roster for many a promising veteran on this 49er roster. General Manager Terry Donahue believes that this purge will have an affect on the coming season’s finality but it will be well worth it in the end.
Bronson’s contributions to the 2003 season were very limited and without much fanfare as he was timid looking on the field and his neck issues really relegated him to light contact because of his fear of rein jury. The broken foot really became the last straw to the 49ers as they evaluated his every play and came to the most anticipated solution in releasing him to create cap space.
Bronson was substituted with a variety of back-ups ranging from John Keith to Dwaine Carpenter and Ronnie Heard. Now it looks as if rookie Keith Lewis and veteran Ronnie Heard will compete for the opposite slot next to All-Pro veteran Tony Parrish. Other free agents are expected to compete throughout training camp such as Lawrence Turner out of Oregon State, Mike Adams out of Delaware and NFL Europe allocation Richard Yancy.
After spending his first four years as a Chicago Bear, Tony Parrish came to the 49ers as a prized free agent in 2002 and has solidified that slot ever since he took control of it. No one has been more determined, gutsier or more consistent then this athlete right here in Tony Parrish.
What is even more ironic and is a tragedy to the organization and the league itself is that he never was warranted consideration for last year’s Pro Bowl after accounting for major Pro Bowl numbers for the 2003 season. But such is life and unfairness in the NFL?
He recorded 73 tackles, tied for the NFL lead with nine interceptions, 15 passes deflected and an impressive 16 special teams tackles. He was also named National Football Conference’s Defensive Player-of-the-Week after his efforts in the 49er victory over the Philadelphia Eagles: five tackles, one forced fumble, a fumble recovery, three passes deflected and two interceptions. He was a one-man wrecking crew in this game that I remember well as one of the highlights of the 2003 season.
Tony Parrish plays the game because he loves it, and he’s a team player from start to finish and a true leader in the locker room and out on the field of play. He will be relied upon more than ever on a roster brimming with rookies.
He was the first player in team history to win the Len Eshmont Award in his first season with the team. The Eshmont Award is given to the team’s most courageous and inspirational player and more importantly it is voted on by his teammates.
He was noted for playing under extreme conditions and mortal pain and never complained or ever whined about it. There were many games he played with multiple injuries and even one where he played with a separated shoulder and just kept going.
Contusions and abrasions were but badges of honor for this guy as he always took his game to the next level all of the time.
Coaches had arguments on and off the field with him in trying to convince him to stay out but his play on the field with even a rehabilitating injury spoke for itself as he just made play after play despite the injury that plagued him at the time.
Tony Parrish is also recognized for his longevity and his ability to stay in the game as entering the 2004 season, the 6-0, 210-pound safety has actually started an impressive 96 consecutive games. This is an unprecedented amount of games in a league full of speed and hostility as it is today. He has the fourth longest active streak at his position in the league right now.
One of many reasons the San Francisco 49ers drafted Oregon’s Keith Lewis was because of head coach Dennis Erickson who actually played against him back in college. Erickson notes Lewis for his athletic abilities and toughness on and off the field. He became one of the Duck’s most dependable defenders, showing a great desire to make plays and always had a knack for being around the football at all times. He plays with intensity and confidence and motivates those around him to play at an even higher level.
In his career Lewis started 37 of 49 games, recording 277 tackles (163 solos) with two sacks for minus 10-yards, 13.5 stops for losses of 43-yards, two forced fumbles, eleven interceptions for 79-yards in returns, 26 passes deflected an a school record seven blocked kicks.
Sounds like a guy the 49ers desperately need to make a secondary work to it’s potential as the offense will rely even more so on an offense that is relatively inexperienced and going through a tough transition from playmakers to players learning on the curve. It will be a Keith Lewis that will give the secondary bite on run support and play action passes as he will be in the spotlight more than ever as the defense tries to get our own offense back out on the field.
“I like Keith Lewis,” 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. “I competed against Keith when I was at Oregon State and I always thought he was a dominant player when we played against them. We had to scheme to play against him. He’s a very physical football player. He is a hitter. He’s a run guy. He’s a good enough athlete to cover.”
Lewis most definitely will be tested on the special teams unit under the 49ers and was a standout on special teams back in college and was a promising running back as well. But his knack for delivering powerful stops and devastating hits led to his secondary career with coaches.
“I think one of the best things that I bring to the table, unlike a lot of safeties that got drafted, is my ability to play special teams,” Lewis said. “I had nine punt blocks in my (college) career and that is just something I love to do. Special teams are something I had a good time doing even in high school. It just followed me and I always had a knack for it.”
Oregon’s Keith Lewis stands 6-0, and weighs 200-pounds and has run the 40 in 4.61. He has been compared to Brent Alexander of the Pittsburgh Steelers. He is a safety that any ball club would be proud to have especially on their special teams unit.
Strengths: Has great recognition skills. He can play the deep middle because of his football instincts and is aggressive when the ball is in the air. Demonstrates good ball skills, will make plays on the ball in the deep half and is very aggressive in run support. He also takes excellent angles to the ball and is a solid open-field tackler.
Weaknesses: He does have stiff hips and doe not turn well in man coverage. This is something he’ll have to improve upon in order to win playing time. He lacks explosive quickness and has below-average change-of-direction skills. He has only marginal recovery speed when he makes a mistake. Needs to improve upon size and strength and will struggle to take on blocks in the box.
However you slice it Keith Lewis is a player that will contribute immediately on special teams in a very big way with his exceptional school record. We should see him in limited action out on the field on nickel downs and in run support where he excels the most.
Learning the playbook will be the biggest challenge he has to be concerned with. Working with veterans in Ronnie Heard and Tony Parrish can only accelerate his potential as a football player in the NFL. He is now a 49er and was the first player to sign a contract from this year’s draft class.
Keith Lewis lends insurance to a secondary that has just lost a veteran in Zack Bronson, and injects youth that a secondary needs sorely in pass defense where we ranked 17th in the NFL. He will bring a competitive edge to training camp and he’ll play exceptionally well on our very own special teams unit.
It goes without saying that this is a year of rebuilding and not just remodeling. Our patience as fans will once again be tested and it will be rewarded down the line should players like Lewis show sudden promise.