Whether it was injury or chemistry issue, losing Keenan Lewis hurts Saints

The New Orleans Saints’ decision to release Keenan Lewis isn’t a complete shock. There were signs they might be ready to turn the page, and they already have started moving on with some promising young replacements.

But there still is no way to put a positive spin on this divorce.

The Saints either didn’t think that Lewis would get healthy enough to help them on the field, or they felt like he had become a malcontent who should be removed for chemistry reasons. It probably was some combination of both.

Either way, that means the Lewis who played so well in 2013 and 2014 is never coming back. And, man, the Saints really could have used that version of Lewis to help fix their ailing defense.

Before Lewis first suffered his hip injury last summer, he was one of the league’s more underrated players. He should have made the Pro Bowl in 2013 and routinely held up well in matchups against top receivers. At this time last year, I had Lewis ranked as the third-best player on the team.

Luckily for the Saints, Delvin Breaux emerged last year from the Canadian Football League and started playing at that same No. 1 cornerback level.

But just imagine how much better things would have been with both of them playing at that level at the same time.

Here are three more takeaways from Friday night’s news of Lewis’ release:

Another financial failure: Even though the Saints are releasing Lewis, they aren’t done paying him. His 2016 salary of $2.7 million is fully guaranteed. (The Saints do, however, get to reduce that amount by however much Lewis makes from another team if he signs elsewhere.)

That’s especially painful for New Orleans since it just added that guarantee into Lewis’ deal last year, when he threatened to hold out if he didn’t get more of his contract guaranteed. The Saints surprisingly catered to Lewis’ demand. Now they’re paying for it.

The Saints also will have to count another $7.2 million against their salary cap over the next two years from the remaining portion of the signing bonuses they previously paid to Lewis. That is known as “dead money” -- and the Saints have become almost as prolific in that area as they have been in their passing offense during the Sean Payton-Drew Brees era.

The Saints have led the NFL in dead money for each of the past two years, thanks to bad deals they’ve abandoned with guys like Junior Galette and Brandon Browner. Add Lewis to the list.

Lewis’ release will bring New Orleans up to around $36 million in dead money for this season, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The team with the second-most dead money (Falcons) is at $21.5 million.

What went wrong: Lewis addressed two of the main fractures in his relationship with the Saints in his interviews with ESPN on Friday. He and the team were butting heads over his recovery from a lingering hip injury, and he felt like he never meshed well with new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen.

Lewis said he was much tighter with former defensive coordinator Rob Ryan and was never one of Allen’s “guys.” Lewis said he didn’t know why, exactly, but he claimed that Allen had even told him seven years ago during the pre-draft scouting process that Lewis wasn’t going to make it. And Lewis said he thinks it might have rubbed Allen the wrong way when Lewis told him last year that he had proved him wrong.

Lewis said they never discussed that, and they never had any specific argument. But they “just never could get on the same page.”

As for the injury stuff, Lewis revealed that he had suffered a minor tear in June and didn’t want to rush back from it in the preseason, preferring to wait until he was closer to 100 percent. Lewis had made that clear to the team -- and he also took his thoughts to ESPN and other media outlets last weekend, which probably rubbed the Saints the wrong way.

The Saints might have a different interpretation of those two issues. Regardless, it's clear there was a growing disconnect between player and team. And the Saints have stressed the importance of locker room culture more than ever over the past two years.

Counting on young CBs: It would be foolish to suggest that Lewis was “expendable” just because the Saints like what they’ve seen from second-year cornerback P.J. Williams and undrafted rookies De’Vante Harris and Ken Crawley.

Those three guys have been among the most impressive young players at any position throughout the entire roster during training camp, so the Saints have to feel better about this move than they would have three weeks ago.

Williams, who like Breaux and Lewis is a bigger, more physical corner, appears poised to take over the No. 2 starting job. Breaux predicted recently that the 6-foot, 196-pounder from Florida State will “shock the league” this year after missing all of last season with a hamstring injury.

Meanwhile, second-year pro Damian Swann likely will compete with Harris and Crawley for the nickel job.

Guess which players will be permanent fixtures on my must-watch list over the next few weeks of the preseason -- especially if they get the chance to face receivers such as the Houston Texans’ DeAndre Hopkins and the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Antonio Brown.