Steelers must do the right thing and extend Cameron Heyward this summer

While the blowback from ot attending a voluntary part of the offseason has passed, it is now up to the Steelers to get a new deal lined up for Cameron Heyward.
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (97)
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward (97) / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Steelers are in a sticky situation with the Cameron Heyward contract this offseason. While the initial drama of him not reporting to the voluntary team activities has come and gone, the residual effects haven’t passed. In particular, there are a lot of fans who seem to be anti-Heyward, and that is a clear mistake.

Following the news breaking that Heyward was not attending voluntary OTAs and was also seeking a new contract, the backlash from the fanbase was strong. The majority of people didn’t want Heyward to get a new deal, and if he did get one, it better be on a stiff discount. There was even a vocal portion of the fanbase that wanted him out of Pittsburgh because of his desire for a new deal. This is the same Heyward who has been a core team leader, player, and is currently the reigning Walter Payton Man of the Year.

The issue stems from Heyward’s age. At 35, he will be one of the oldest starting defenders in the league. The only other player as old as Heyward under contract right now is John Jenkins, and he is only playing for 2.75 million dollars. The oldest player with an average annual value akin to Heywards is 31.

On the surface, paying up for older players isn’t wise. Father time is undefeated, and Heyward will be no exception. That said, you want to keep your star players for as long as you can, and Heyward is still playing at a high level. It would be a mistake for the front office to not get Heyward a new deal.

Why the Steelers must extend Heyward

Simply put, there is little evidence that Heyward is actually regressing. Sure, his sack numbers were down from last year, but he was also struggling with a groin injury for the entire season, limiting him to only playing in 11 total games and likely playing injured in those games. His speed was noticeably missing, but playing on a bum groin would do that to anyone. The strength and run defense was still there.

T.J. Watt was injured just two seasons ago and only amassed 5.5 sacks in 10 games. No one was claiming it was a regression, as his decline in play was tied to his injury. The same is true for Heyward. While at his age it would be surprising to see him get into the 10-11 sack range, he can still contribute to this defense. At worst, his run defense is still immense, and despite his injury, he was the best defensive lineman on the roster last year.

This is a room that needs a major facelift, and while Heyward won’t be around for the long term, he can still play a role in that transition. Given the Steelers overhaul of the offensive line, one has to imagine that the defensive line is next. I want Heyward there to help ease in the next generation.

Unless he turns around his play, Larry Ogunjobi is likely a cap casualty next offseason. Keeanu Benton should be a fixture on this line, but the team views him as more of an interior player. Beyond that, there are veteran depth pieces and question marks in DeMarvin Leal and sixth-round pick Logan Lee, neither of which are locks to be on the roster.

You can’t go into 2025 with nothing at either end spot. Even if you land an early-round rookie, there will be a learning curve. Defensive line has seen its value skyrocket in recent years, so you would likely be spending more on a free agent than Heyward.

Even if you get his contract close to 20 million dollars a season, you can structure the contract to keep the Steelers protected. You convert his salary into a signing bonus this year and add a roster bonus next March. Assuming he keeps playing well, you have him around at a fair price for at least another season. If he falls off the cliff, you cut him before that roster bonus is handed out.

While the NFL is a business and teams can’t lose sight of that, it wouldn’t hurt the Steelers to be better about what they do with veterans. Everyone hates looking back on James Harrison and Franco Harris in different uniforms to end their career. The team also forced Troy Paulamalu to retire, and that damaged their relationship with the Hall of Famer for quite a few years.

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Heyward is still performing well and deserves a new deal. This team has cap space to work with and can structure the deal so as to not kill their cap space if he were to majorly regress this year. This keeps around a good player, a core leader, and it provides a mentor for the hopeful wave of youth that the defensive line will see next season.