Heyward is entering his third season this fall. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports
On Wednesday afternoon, I discussed how the 2013 season will be an extremely pivotal one for defensive end Ziggy Hood. Pittsburgh’s first round draft pick in 2009 is entering the final year of his rookie contract this fall, and he must show the Steelers’ brass that he can perform on a consistent enough basis to earn a new deal with the team.
Although many, including myself, point to 2013 being an enormously high-stakes season for Hood, I would be remiss if I did not mention that the 2013 and 2014 campaigns could even more pivotal years for another one of Pittsburgh’s defensive ends: Cameron Heyward.
Just like they did when they selected Hood back in 2009, the Steelers were again looking to rebuild their rapidly aging defensive line when they took Heyward with the 31st overall pick in the 2011 N.F.L. Draft. While Hood was drafted to be the heir apparent to Aaron Smith, Heyward was acquired by Pittsburgh to backup, then eventually replace Brett Keisel at the other defensive end spot.
While Hood was thrust into the starting lineup relatively early in his career after Smith went down with an injury during the middle of the 2010 season, Heyward has barely seen the field during his first two seasons in Pittsburgh. In spot and mop-up duty over his 31 regular season games, the defensive end has only racked up 35 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
Although defensive ends in 3-4 base defenses are not supposed to rack up monster statistics, Heyward has yet to shine in any of the few instances he has actually seen the field during his two-year career. Heck, the 31st overall pick of the 2011 Draft has yet to start his first career game in the N.F.L..
Luckily for Cameron, there is some hope on the horizon for him to break-out. With Steve McLendon taking over Casey Hampton’s spot in the middle this fall, the former Ohio State Buckeye will rise one spot higher in Pittsburgh’s defensive line-rotation in his third season in the league. Heyward is also sure to receive more chances to shine this fall, because one would have to believe that Pittsburgh’s coaching staff would like to keep both Hood and Keisel as fresh as possible.
The fact that Heyward has yet to assert himself at any point during his first two professional seasons must be troubling enough for Colbert & Co. to think about as they are trying to rebuild their team. Thankfully, some extra playing time, should he earn it this fall, will serve Heyward well. The defensive end needs it too, especially since his rookie contract is set to expire once the 2014 season finishes.
However, if Keisel stays healthy and starts and plays in a majority of the Steelers’ 16 regular season games this fall, Heyward will only have a one-year extended audition to prove himself worthy of a contract extension from Pittsburgh’s front office in 2014. That of course is if the team elects to not sign Keisel after his contract expires after this season.
If “The Beard” is re-upped after the 2013 campaign though, Heyward might not even receive a chance to start during the final year of his contract if he cannot prove that he is worthy enough to take over for Keisel once his time to move on finally arrives.
In the event that scenario occurs, one can infer that the front office and coaching staff are not confident that Cameron is indeed a long-term answer at defensive end. If a former first round pick cannot even break into the starting lineup during his first four seasons in the league, then I think that it is safe to say that he is unlikely to be re-upped by the front office once his rookie deal expires.
Heyward certainly seems motivated to build upon his lack of productivity during his first two years in the league. In an article written by Ralph N. Paul of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Heyward was none to pleased with his performance in 2011 and 2012.
Talk aside, Cameron must prove over the next few seasons that he can be a long-term answer for the Steelers at the defensive end position. Although he has the luxury of there being little experienced depth behind him at the moment, Nick Williams was drafted for a reason. Moreover, I am sure that the Steelers’ brass will not hesitate to select another five-technique or two during next year’s draft to push Heyward to boot.
As sad as it sounds, the window for Heyward to establish himself as an integral piece of Pittsburgh’s rebuilding process is closing by the day. Some of his 2011 classmates like Cortez Allen and Marcus Gilbert have already made themselves as parts of the Steelers’ long-term plans during their first two years in the league.
If Heyward fails to live up to expectations though, a contract extension to stay in Pittsburgh is unlikely to come his way in 2015.
Follow me on Twitter: @DominicDiTolla
Follow & Like “NPC” on Facebook: Nice Pick, Cowher