End-of-season player exit meetings are not something that we are often privy to as outsiders of the football world. Generally, we only get a glimpse into that world when a player is asked by a reporter how the meeting went, if the player is willing to discuss it.
Still, it’s not generally a hard concept to grasp, and we have a pretty good feel by now of how Mike Tomlin and his staff likes to operate, and we see all the game film, so it’s not an overly difficult project to simulate. If we were to administer the end-of-season player exit meetings, it might go something like this.
Player: Cameron Heyward
Position: Right Defensive Tackle
Experience: 4 Years
As of right now, fourth-year defensive end Cameron Heyward is the best player on the defensive side of the ball that the Steelers have to their name. With slightly more consistency than Lawrence Timmons—who nonetheless earned his first Pro Bowl bid this year—it is perhaps Heyward more than anybody who is now the nucleus of this unit.
2014 was his first full season as a starter, though he also started the majority of the 2013 season after replacing Ziggy Hood after the first four games due as much to Heyward’s play than Hood’s.
That he tied for the team lead in sacks with 7.5 only tells part of the story of his season, because, while he may actually be the team’s best pass rusher relative to position, he also does much more than just getting after the passer.
One of Heyward’s greatest abilities is, as the saying goes, his availability. He has yet to miss a snap due to injury in his four seasons. Beyond that, he rarely comes off the field anyway. And he plays on both sides of the line, and inside when the Steelers go to the nickel.
While he is a solid player against the run, I do find that he can still misplay a run on occasion, or be too easily drawn out of a hole. By and large, however, he is one of the better run defenders on the team, and would look better if he got better play in that department around him.
Beyond the mere fact that he has emerged as one of the Steelers’ best defensive weapons, however, is a greater quality in Heyward. Over the course of the past season and a half or so, he has transformed himself, quietly, into a leader of the team.
It began simply by being himself on the field, playing with a relentless motor that was infectious to those around him, but as time has progressed, he has become more vocal on and off the field. He is one of the blue chip players around which the next great defense will be built, as I expect that he will be in Pittsburgh for a while yet.