You'd be hard-pressed to find a Pittsburgh Steelers fan who doesn't love Cameron Heyward. The veteran defensive leader and perennial team captain embodies what it means to wear the black and gold on a weekly basis, and after completing his 13th NFL season, he's still by far the most tenured player on the team.
However, all good things must come to an end at one point or another, and that time is rapidly approaching with Heyward. Recently, on an episode of his Not Just Football Podcast, Heyward expressed that he loves playing football and that he has no plans to retire.
Heyward also was blunt with his response about potentially taking a pay cut. Simply put, it's not happening.
Now the Pittsburgh Steelers find themselves in a bit of a dilemma. It's well established that this franchise has a tendency to be loyal to a fault. Can they afford to be when it comes to Cam Heyward's contract?
Cameron Heyward contract details
Let's get down to brass tax. Cameron Heyward is entering the final season of the four-year, $65.6 million contract he signed during the 2020 offseason. This contract comes with an average annual salary of $16.4 million, but as they often do, the Steelers chose to backload this deal --giving them more salary cap space to work with from 2020 to 2022.
Now we are about the feel the effects of this decision. In the final year of his deal, Heyward has a cap number of $22,406,250, per Over the Cap. The most updated figure has Pittsburgh at over $15 million in the salary cap hole (and negative $18.8 million in effective cap space).
There are ways to climb back out of this. The Steelers are sure to make some easy decisions to save significant cap space by cutting players like Allen Robinson II and Mitch Trubisky. But these moves will barely get their head above water and more will be needed if they want to make a splash in free agency.
Steelers must consider cutting Cameron Heyward
These are the business decisions that nobody ever wants to think about and that front offices hate making. It's not hard to understand why. Heyward has clearly been one of the best players to sport a Pittsburgh Steelers uniform over the past decade-plus. Now comes the question: should the team risk hurting relationships or do what's best for their future?
Heyward is still a respectable football player, but wear and tear and age are quickly catching up with him. In 2023, the Steelers didn't get a fraction of their money's worth as Heyward spent half the season on IR with a groin injury, and he was a good (but not great) player once he returned for the second half of the year.
Now Heyward turns 35 years old this offseason as he gets set to enter his 14th year in the NFL, and fans have a right to question if the play we can expect warrants such a large contract. If the Pittsburgh Steelers were to cut him, they would instantly save $16 million in cap space -- enough to get them out of the hole in one fell swoop.
With the other roster decisions they make, they could give themselves enough cap space in free agency to go after a high-profile player or two --one who is much younger than Heyward with more left in the tank.
What will the Steelers do with Cameron Heyward's contract?
I completely understand if you would oppose the decision to cut a player like Cameron Heyward. The Steelers will agree with you, and this would go against both their character and trends we have seen in the past when it comes to legendary veterans on this team.
The Steelers care more than any other team about having their best players retire with them, and they don't want to see a player like Heyward suit up for anyone else. Because Cam is not willing to take a pay cut, the most likely solution for Pittsburgh is to extend his contract and tacking on a few voidable years. This will allow them to lower his substantial $22 million cap number for the 2024 season.
As you can imagine, there are consequences of doing this. The Steelers would feel the effects of this eventually after kicking the can further down the road. If Pittsburgh elects to go their route, they could be forced to eat dead money over the next several seasons -- even after Heyward retires.
This is tomorrow's problem, but when we look back on it, we are going to wish the team had extra money to work with in future free agency periods. Still, this is very likely to be the option that the Pittsburgh Steelers will go with. I'd be shocked to see them cut Hewyard.
There's no easy answer when it comes to situations like this. You can either do what's best for your team in the present or do what's best for your team in the future; there's no in-between. We know team president Art Rooney II and the philosophy of the organization very well by now. They want to win, and they believe that Cameron Heyward is a key part of the puzzle. They will do everything in their power to make sure they are competitive and successful in 2024.