Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward is going to get paid the big bucks. It's just a question of when.
When Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert met with the media Tuesday, he was asked about a possible extension for Heyward, the team's first round draft pick in 2011 who is now playing on his team-option fifth year, worth $6.9 million, fully guaranteed at the start of the season.
"That business and that type of stuff we always do after," Colbert said, as quoted by Tribune-Review reporter Mark Kaboly. "We always take (a look at) our own first: free agents, potential free agents, other teams' free agents and then we look into the future and guys that are free not in 2015 but 2016. But those types of things really occur after the others."
First, the Steelers must get their own free agents addressed. That list includes outside linebacker Arthur Moats and cornerback Brice McCain, probably the Steelers' top two targets among their own players set to hit the open market March 10. OLB Jason Worilds is a target, but one who's almost assuredly going to reach free agency, where he's likely to sign a big deal elsewhere.
Colbert didn't rule out the possibility of making Worilds an offer before free agency, but it would seem the Steelers would have a better chance at offering Worilds a contract closer to market value if they freed up cap space. Signing Heyward to an extension could be one of the smarter ways to do that.
He has a cap number of $6.9 million, and taking a bonus this year along with a lighter salary could drop his cap number down to around $5 million.
Colbert said the team and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger are also now in talks about an extension, so it's not solely about the free agents. Depending on the specifics of the deal, it's possible the Steelers could shave another $2 million off the cap. Adding those deals together, it could free up enough to make a run at Worilds.
Both Moats and McCain should be affordable.
Heyward in the open market, though, likely would not be. He's establishing himself as one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL (he moves inside on passing downs while starting outside in the Steelers' base defense), and would be a valuable commodity among several teams.
He's played well enough and consistently enough to be viewed as a core player of the team, and an extension would solidify that.