The Collective Bargaining Agreement signed before the 2011 season made all rookie contracts four years in length. One caveat to that is players taken in the first round, like Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward, have a team option for a fifth year at a designated level of salary roughly equal to the average salaries of the third through 25th highest paid players at his position.
That information is based on an informative piece from Jason at Over The Cap - a friend of BTSC and a must-read for all cap enthusiasts.
The Steelers have until the end of the 2013 regular season - which is Dec. 29 - to pick up Heyward's option for the 2015 season. There is a 99.9 percent chance that will happen. In fact, according to OTC, Blaine Gabbert and Jake Locker are likely to be the only two players in the top 10 of that draft to not have their options picked up. That's largely due to injury concerns and the large amount of money (roughly $13 million) needing to be paid for quarterbacks.
This system helps create some time for discussions on an extension after their four-year contract is up, but still guarantees (from injury at least) the player's contract in that fifth season at a substantially higher rate.
Heyward has been one of the most outstanding defensive players the Steelers have had, and is clearly in their long-term plans. The only question is when they'll offer him an extension.
He's still at a low price in 2014, so it doesn't necessarily make sense to sign him this offseason, but that could also lock him up long-term for less overall money. He's clearly someone the Steelers want in their future.
If nothing else, expect his option to be picked up, and an offseason full of roster moves could include a long-term deal for Heyward, among others.