It may have taken a little longer than they or their fans would have liked, but the New Orleans Saints finally made a nice splash in free agency Thursday.
The Saints made a significant move to upgrade their 32nd-ranked defense with the signing of former Pittsburgh Steelers cornerback Keenan Lewis to a five-year contract worth a reported $26.3 million.
Lewis, 26, played his first four NFL seasons with the Steelers, who selected him in the third round of the 2009 draft with the 96th overall pick.
A New Orleans native, Lewis played at O. Perry Walker High School before going to Oregon State where he was a four-year starter and four-time All-Pac 10 academic selection for former Saints secondary coach Mike Riley.
The 6-foot-1, 208-pound Lewis was a starter with the Steelers for the first time in 2012, when he produced a breakthrough season. He recorded 71 total tackles and broke up 23 passes while playing opposite former University of Louisiana at Lafayette standout and fellow New Orleanian Ike Taylor.
Lewis posted career highs in tackles and passes defensed in helping the Steelers lead the NFL in total defense and passing yards allowed.
Even though he was a starter for only one season, Lewis was generally regarded as one of the top cornerbacks available when the free-agency signing period began Tuesday.
Less than 24 hours later, he tweeted that he was going to visit with the Saints at their Metairie training facility.
“I’m very excited to be able to come back to my hometown,” Lewis said in a team release. “Having grown up here, I understand the passion that the fans have for the Saints, and I’m blessed to be able to have the chance to play in front of them here in the future.
“I had a great visit with the Saints and am thankful for the time I spent with the Pittsburgh Steelers and wish them continued success.”
The Saints were also expected to visit with former Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Derek Cox, but he agreed to a four-year contract worth $20 million with the San Diego Chargers late Wednesday.
“We are excited to be able to add a player of Keenan’s ability to our defense,” Saints General Manager Mickey Loomis said in the release. “He was a top free agent target for us, and I know he is very excited to be able to come home to play football.”
The Saints set an NFL single-season record in allowing 7,042 total yards last season, but they also ranked next-to-last against the pass in allowing 292.6 yards per game.
They gave up 31 touchdown passes, just two off the league lead, as opposing quarterbacks completed 61.5 percent of their passes and compiled a passer rating of 93.8.
Lewis has played in 45 career games as a pro and has 112 total tackles, with one interception, 34 passes defensed and a forced fumble. He also has 13 tackles and one forced fumble on special teams.
The Saints starters last season were Jabari Greer, their top cover corner, and Patrick Robinson, a first-round draft pick in 2010 who struggled at times during his three-year career.
Corey White, a fifth-round draft pick last spring, was settling in as a solid nickel back until a knee injury ended his rookie season early.
The Saints are reminding season ticket holders that the deadline for the initial payment on their 2013 ticket invoices is 6 p.m. Friday.
The ticket office at the Metairie training facility will be open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday. Payments can also be made by phone by calling (504) 731-1700 or online at www.NewOrleansSaints.com.