By Alan Robinson
Defensive end Cam Heyward experienced exactly the kind of season the Steelers envisioned him playing when they made him a first-round draft pick in 2011.
Now, the question is whether Heyward’s breakthrough season will convince them to pick up an option on his contract that would give him another season in Pittsburgh without going through negotiations.
The rookie wage scale adopted in 2011 mandated that all draft picks be signed to four-year contracts. But, for all first-round picks, a fifth year can be added by the team.
Heyward, the former Ohio State star, was the 31st pick on the first round in 2011.
The Steelers have until May 3 to pick up the option — but it’s not likely they would do so until that date because, once the option is exercised, a player’s fifth-year salary becomes guaranteed even if he is injured during offseason workouts.
For players taken in the top 10, the amount owed in the fifth season must be equal to the transition player tender for his position. Heyward falls into the group of picks No. 11-32, so the Steelers must pay him the average of the top 25 players at his position, with the top three salaries excluded, or Nos. 4-25.
The Steelers already have Heyward under contract for 2014, and exercising the option would commit him to playing for them in 2015, as well. However, it would come at a cost; the average salary for a Top 25 defensive end in 2013 was approximately $8.5 million.
That’s far above the Steelers’ pay scale for a defensive end; Brett Keisel, for example, made $3.9 million in 2013. Heyward’s contract calls for him to make $1.3 million in 2014, with the pro-rated share of his signing bonus driving his cap value up to $2.13 million.
The Steelers could choose to ignore the fifth-year option and attempt to lock up Heyward to a new contract before the 2014 season begins. But premium defensive ends command big salaries and, if the Steelers don’t work out a new contract or pick up the option, they risk losing Heyward to a team willing to pay the going rate for a disruptive defensive end.
They took the same risk a year ago with cornerback Keenan Lewis, and ended up being an impact player after signing with his hometown Saints for $26 million. With Lewis gone, the Steelers’ cornerbacks struggled for much of the season.
Heyward, a part-time player until this season, played 845 of a possible 1,093 snaps and had five sacks, seven quarterback hurries, a team-high 34 quarterback hits and five batted passes, plus 59 tackles.
Pro Football Focus graded him at 11.4, the second-highest ranking on the Steelers defense to Troy Polamalu’s 12.2 Heyward and outside linebacker Jason Worilds were the only players on the Steelers’ defense to grade above average as both a pass rusher and a run defender. Heyward ranked 18th overall among all NFL 3-4 defensive ends.
Heyward graded out at 6.8 in 2012, but he played only 267 snaps, or only about one-quarter of all the snaps played by the Steelers defense.