Pittsburgh Steelers Extending Cameron Heyward is Risky

When the Steelers drafted Cameron Heyward out of Ohio State in the first round of the 2011 Draft (31st overall), they were hoping he would become the future cornerstone of an aging defensive line. His combination of size and speed made him perfect for the Steelers. Not to mention he was born in Pittsburgh.

Well for the Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line, the future is now.

On Thursday night, the Steelers announced a new six-year deal for Heyward. NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport reported that the total deal is for $59.25 million, according to a source informed of the contract.

The new money average of $10.45 million a year for Heyward now makes him the second-highest paid Steeler on the roster, only behind Ben Roethlisberger. The deal surpasses those given to Lawrence Timmons, Maurkice Pouncey and Antonio Brown in average annual value and it will keep Heyward in Pittsburgh until 2020.

At first glance, the magnitude of this contract seemed odd.

Don’t get me wrong, Heyward has been an extremely good player for Pittsburgh in his first four years and his best years seem to be ahead of him. But has he really warranted a contract that will pay him similar to the best defensive ends in the league?

Heyward’s new deal will make him the fourth-highest paid 3-4 defensive end in the league. His contract is now similar to Cameron Jordan of the Saints and Corey Liuget of the Chargers and is only behind J.J. Watt from the Texans. He is the highest paid non-Pro-Bowl player among them.

Now if you look at the numbers of these players, they have been significantly better than Heyward.

All three (Heyward, Jordan, and Liuget) are entering their fifth seasons and are adequate run stoppers. Heyward may be slightly better at stopping the run, but the real reason defensive ends get paid is for their ability to rush the passer. His run stopping certainly didn’t make him $60 million.

Heyward has just 15 sacks thus far in his career. His best season, by far, was last year in which he recorded 7.5 sacks. He clearly picked a good time to have the best season of his career.

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In comparison, Jordan has 29 sacks in the same four years for the Saints. Last year was considered a “down” year for him as he managed only 7.5 sacks, the same amount as Heyward finished with. It paled to Jordan’s 12.5 sacks in 2013.

Clearly, the Steelers paid for potential rather than past production. Heyward has gotten progressively better each year he has been in the league. Pittsburgh is counting on this progression to continue.

Here’s the problem though, what if he doesn’t continue to progress?

What if he never becomes a player who can give the Steelers more than five sacks and 50 tackles a year? Would the $10 million a year be worth it in that case?

Or worse, what if 2014 was the best Heyward will ever be and he regresses? What if the 2012 Heyward who put up just one sack is the real Heyward?

It would be a travesty, to put it mildly.

Now of course, there is a significant chance that this deal works out. He could just as easily become one of the best defensive players in the league over the next few years. Pittsburgh would have quite a steal if that happens, but it is a risk.

So hopefully it works out for the Steelers. They need someone on defense to step into a leadership role and Heyward seems primed to be that person. Paying him like a leader should only help the transition.

Last offseason the Steelers made a similar move around this time on defense, signing cornerback Cortez Allen to a contract extension. The thoughts for signing Allen were the same as they were for Heyward. They were both young players coming off career best seasons and could be cornerstones of the future.

Hopefully, it works out better for Heyward then it did with Allen.

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