After a successful 2014 season, the Steelers enter the offseason with a laundry list of needs. On the coaching side, with the "resignation" of Dick LeBeau and the promotion of Keith Butler to defensive coordinator, the Steelers have settled one need, and are said to be considering splitting the linebacker coaching job between current assistants Jerry Olsavsky and Joey Porter. They've signed several players to futures contracts, even reaching across the border to sign Shawn Lemon of the CFL.
The elephant in the room is QB Ben Roethlisberger, who tied Drew Brees for the league lead in passing yards this season, reclaiming his position among the NFL elite. He has one year left on his deal, and the Rooneys have made it clear they want him to retire a Steeler. Big Ben could be in line for one of the largest contracts in NFL history.
On the defensive side, where they need to rebuild, they are likely to try to extend the contract of DE Cameron Heyward. A former first-round selection from Ohio State, the Pittsburgh-born Heyward has emerged as one of the premiere 3-4 defensive ends in the league. He is entering the last year of his rookie deal, and the Steelers would be wise to lock him up and prevent him from hitting the open market as an unrestricted free agent in 2016.
While 3-4 defensive ends typically don't put up huge numbers (with the notable exception of the superhuman J.J. Watt), Heyward was actually the third most productive 3-4 end in the league in terms of sacks, as his 7.5 take-downs ranked behind only Watt (20.5) and Sheldon Richardson (8). He is arguably even better when it comes to stopping the run, as the 300-pound mauler helped the Steelers achieve a respectable rush defense in 2014.
With Brett Keisel potentially having played his last game in Pittsburgh, it's Heyward's time to be "the guy" on a re-tooled defensive line. Still only 25 years old, re-signing the talented end would provide an anchor for their defensive line. And he might come at a bargain price.
Right now, there are 24 3-4 defensive ends who make more money than Heyward. The leader in terms of salary, no surprise, is the disruptive Watt, whose $16 million annual salary is the highest in the league for a defensive player. Haloti Ngata, Calais Campbell, Jurrell Casey and Darnell Dockett round out the top five highest paid 3-4 ends.
Given their salaries, Heyward's production thus far, his potential and his young age, Heyward is probably looking at a five- or six-year deal worth around $8 million annually. Casey, who received a four-year $36-million extension from the Tennessee Titans, was drafted the same year as Heyward and has put up similar numbers, so a Heyward extension could mirror Casey's new deal.
Regardless of the details, Heyward has proved his importance to the Steelers, and re-signing him to a long-term deal would be a big step toward establishing a top-tier defense once again.