In news that was a pleasant surprise to just about everyone, it was reported on Sunday that the Steelers signed veteran defensive lineman Cameron Heyward to a five-year contract-extension through the 2024 season.
Heyward, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, entered his 10th training camp in Pittsburgh as one of several players nearing the end of their current deals. Since being up against the salary cap seems to be a perpetual state for the Steelers, it just didn’t appear they’d be able to do a whole heck of a lot with Heyward or anyone else. When you combined their current state with their likely financial state in 2021—far in the red due to a pandemic-induced decrease in the salary cap—the real question became: How many would be gone?
So how did the Steelers manage this deal with Heyward? I don’t know, I’m not Omar Khan, the Steelers Vice President of Football and Business Administration, but I’m not surprised he was able to work some magic and make money just appear out of nowhere like Barry from the old show, Burn Notice.
The better question for a non-financial wizard like yours truly to answer is: Why Heyward and not, say, receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is younger and, just months shy of his 24th birthday, appears to be heading into the prime of his career? Smith-Schuster has already enjoyed great success so far in his three-plus years in Pittsburgh. Furthermore, blessed with an impressive combination of size, physicality and even speed, he screams number one receiver. When you add his physical attributes to his charm, infectious personality and leadership skills, the guy also screams Steeler for life, a player who could be an ambassador for the franchise, not only during the duration of his time in Pittsburgh, but for many years after he finally hangs up his cleats.
So why go with the 31-year old defensive lineman, a player who may physically break down long before he’s able to fulfill the entirety of his new deal?
I’ll help you with that answer: Look at the Steelers depth along the defensive line. Got it? Now, look at the depth at wide receiver.
Heading into the 2019 season, the Steelers defensive line included Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Javon Hargrave and Tyson Alualu. It was arguably considered the strongest and deepest position on the team. But how would it have looked in 2021, had Heyward followed in the footsteps of Hargrave, who left via free agency after the 2019 campaign?
It’s hard to say, but I can’t imagine the Steelers being able to replace the skill and production that both Heyward and Hargrave provided. They may tried to promote Isaiah Buggs, a 2019 seventh-round pick, or Carlos Davis, a 2020 seventh-round pick, but they call it draft pedigree for a reason.
Speaking of draft pedigree, the receiving corps has plenty of it. In fact, the Steelers love drafting receivers in the second or third round—at least they have since 2017.
In James Washington, a second-round pick in 2018, Diontae Johnson, a third-round pick in 2019 and Chase Claypool, a second-round pick in 2020, the Steelers have three receivers who seem capable of reaching the same heights as a Smith-Schuster.
It remains to be seen if all, or any, will reach that level, but the future of the receiver room appears to be bright, whether Smith-Schuster is around in 2021 or not.
I’m not saying Smith-Schuster isn’t a special talent. I’m not saying I’d be happy to see him go. It’s just that he appears to be a luxury at this point.
Take the BTSC team of writers and podcasters as an example. The team is huge, and everyone does a splendid job. Therefore, if I said, “Screw this place, I’m taking my services elsewhere if you don’t give me the moon,” Jeff and Dave might say, “See ya.” But if there were only three writers, and the other two didn’t know how to spell, they might put in a call to outer space.
That’s how you have to look at the Steelers and the roster composition of both their defensive line and receivers. I’m not sure what Smith-Schuster is even asking for, and I don’t know what the Steelers are interested in paying him, but it appears they hold the leverage in these negotiations, based on the make-up of their receiver depth chart.
To sum it all up, to bottom line it, it may seem odd that the Steelers put their limited resources into signing a 31-year old defensive lineman, but keeping him around for the next few years might be more beneficial to the team’s success than a 24-year old who is just one of many talented, young receivers on the roster.