The Steelers signed defensive end Cam Heyward to a six-year deal that will keep him in Pittsburgh through the 2020 season, the team announced Thursday night. According to multiple reports, the contract is worth $59.25 million for an average of $9.9 million per season. The 26-year-old 2011 first-round pick was set to earn $6.7 million in 2015, which would have been the final year of his rookie deal.
So who is Cam Heyward?
Heyward might be the best player you never heard of...
Originally drafted 31st overall in 2011 (one spot behind Muhammad Wilkerson, as it turns out), Heyward didn't make his first NFL start until 2013. Like most young players in then-defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's scheme, Heyward needed time to learn the nuances of one of the NFL's most complex defenses. But once it clicked, he quickly -- and quietly -- became a dominating force on a Steelers unit that was looking to recapture the success it had for most of the previous decade.
Heyward ranked 19th among all 3-4 defensive ends in 2013, according to ProFootballFocus, and catapulted to No. 6 in those rankings last season, behind only J.J. Watt, Sheldon Richardson, Wilkinson, Calais Campbell and Fletcher Cox.
Heyward also graded out as the Steelers' best defender in 2014, ahead of James Harrison, Jason Worilds and Lawrence Timmons. And at 26 -- and with the defense set to improve -- Heyward's best days are ahead of him, a sentiment the Steelers clearly share as evidenced by his new contract.
How does Heyward's deal stack up against other defensive ends?
According to Spotrac.com, Heyward is now No. 11. If it sounds low, it is. But remember: Heyward isn't a 4-3 defensive end whose primary job is to rush the passer. He's a 3-4 end, who is responsible for taking on double-teams so the linebackers behind him can blow through gaps and make plays in the offensive backfield.
(That said, J.J. Watt is the NFL's highest-paid defensive end, averaging $16.7 million a season, and he plays in a 3-4 scheme. Of course, Watt is a transcendent talent that would be just as successful playing in a 1-10 defense where he was the only down lineman. He's that good -- and worth whatever he makes and then some.)
The rest of the top-10:
What about the Steelers' chances in 2015?
We touched on this topic two weeks ago and basically, it comes down to this: If the Steelers' D can improve from bottom-of-the-barrel (they ranked 30th overall, according to Football Outsiders) to just average, this team could make a deep playoff run. The offense is elite (the unit ranked second last season behind only Aaron Rodgers and the Packers), and we've seen plenty of teams hoist a Lombardi Trophy with a potent, high-scoring offense and a defense that does just enough. Put another way: That 2008 Steelers defense, which was truly dominant, is a distant memory.
And that brings us back to the 2015 defense, which is long on athleticism and talent but short on experience. He's what we wrote earlier this month:
The Steelers used three of their first four 2015 draft picks to improve a bottom-of-the-barrel defense, starting with rush linebacker Bud Dupree, taken 22nd overall. Cornerbacks Senquez Golson and Doran Grant were added in Rounds 2 and 4. It's a familiar theme: Pittsburgh drafted linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt in Rounds 1 and 2 in 2014, and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones was the 17th overall pick in 2013.
But the infusion of youth, which coincides with the departures of Troy Polamalu, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel -- important pieces in the defense's long run of dominance -- also comes with growing pains. It explains the lackluster sack totals and everything that follows -- the struggles in pass coverage, and even issues stopping the run.
And, of course, there's Heyward, who's now in Pittsburgh until 2020.
Who's next in line for a new deal?
The Steelers locked up quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to a five-year, $99 million contract in March. Heyward followed on Thursday, and the expectation is that left tackle Kelvin Beachum could be next. That's 2012 seventh-round pick Kelvin Beachum who started every game last season and 12 the year before.
His rookie deal expires after the 2015 season, and for an idea of just how good he's been consider this: Beachum ranked fifth among all left tackles last season, according to ProFootballFocus, behind Jason Peters, Andrew Whitworth, Joe Thomas and Joe Staley. That's impressive for anyone, especially another Steelers player most folks have never heard of.
One more thing...
Heyward, who played at Ohio State, is the son of former NFL and Pitt running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward.
never know how much it means 2 stay a steeler! I grew up admiring the steelers I bleed black & gold. Iron head is looking down with a smile— Cam Heyward (@CamHeyward) July 17, 2015