Steelers: Investment in Cameron Heyward will pay off for years to come


The Pittsburgh Steelers made one of their best long-term moves in recent memory when they resigned defensive end Cameron Heyward to a six-year contract extension in July of the 2015 offseason. Since the Steelers selected him thirty-first overall in the 2011 draft, Heyward’s stock has continued to rise as the former Ohio State Buckeye enters the midway point of his fifth season in the NFL.

It could be seen that Evander “Ziggy” Hood‘s conversion to defensive end did not pay off well after he was drafted by the Steelers in the 2009 season. The success that made him a first round prospect as a Missouri Tiger did not follow him into the professional game and it was very clear that he was not a long-term solution. It would not take the best defensive first round selection made by Mike Tomlin and Kevin Colbert since 2007 long to make an impact.

Taking over starting duties for Hood near the end of the 2013 season, Heyward displayed that he was the better fit at the position to the point where the Steelers let Hood leave in free agency after the end of his rookie contract. Heyward’s first full year as a starter fueled the Steelers desire to lock him up with a long-term contract when he posted an impressive 7.5 sacks.

The last time the Steelers made a big contract move to sign a player for a long-term deal it all but backfired on them. Cortez Allen‘s $26 million contract was a gamble investment that the cornerback could be a star of the future at the position, but after demoralizing play and ending up on the Injured/Reserve list for two straight seasons, it has been a disastrous choice for the organization.

Such has not been the case for Heyward in seven games after his new contract. He has been a terror for offensive lines to handle this year and has been a huge contributor in bringing back the dangerous and disruptive force that the Steelers’ defensive line has been known for. In seven games they have only allowed one rushing touchdown and that was to Charcandrick West last week.

Heyward has been a figurehead for the Steelers not only on the field, but off the field as well. On a number of occasions he has been vocal on how and where the defense is in need of improvement. Always holding himself accountable for missed plays on the field, he has even went as far as to say he mentally considers himself a bust for not performing up to his own expectations.

Heyward had this to say about the performance of the defense as a whole after their week eight loss to Kansas City:

"Too many times we were late on tackles, too many times we were late on blitzes, including myself. We’ve got to get better."

The Steelers have been in desperate need of a vocal leader on their defense for years. Troy Polamalu may have been a leader on the field in just his play alone, but it takes much more to inspire a young defensive group than athletic ability. Heyward’s involvement as a prime voice on the Steelers’ defense will help evolve it into the contender that it once was and is expected to be.

Don’t let the fact that Heyward has only tallied three total sacks this year fool you into thinking his play on the field is not as productive as it was last year. He is half a sack away from matching Stephon Tuitt in most sacks on the team, and the fact that multiple members of the defense are getting to the quarterback often means he is not left to do all the work in the trenches. Before the season is over Heyward will most likely eclipse the 7.5 total he posted last season.

If not for Heyward’s stellar play week in and week out, the Steelers’ defensive line would be in more of a predicament than it already is. With Tuitt more than likely to miss his second straight game this year, Heyward’s ability to stay on the field constantly frees up a player for the Steelers to rotate in Tuitt’s spot with Cam Thomas and L.T. Walton. Being the player that offensive coordinators have to plan for every week says a lot about what Heyward brings to the table in terms of pure talent and athleticism.

He may not have the name known league-wide, Pro Bowls, or awards like players such as J.J. Watt, but he doesn’t have to. Former defensive end Brett Keisel served on the Steelers defensive line for over a decade and only received one Pro Bowl nomination. In most cases, on the Steelers defense, the linebackers take all the glory and claim the statistics.

The Pittsburgh Steelers may have made their best roster move in years besides resigning Ben Roethlisberger to his own long-term deal when Heyward was extended this year. With all the issues that have been drawn to attention with the Steelers ability to draft playmaking athletes every year this young man is living proof that the organization can find premiere talent.

In years to come when the question “Who was the best first round selection drafted during the Mike Tomlin era?” is asked, it will be Cameron Heyward’s name that is brought into discussion time and time again.

Next: Boykin finally getting his chance?

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