Player: Darrius Heyward-Bey
Position: Wide Receiver
Free Agent Status: Unrestricted
2015 Salary Cap Hit: $665,000
2015 Season Breakdown: Darrius Heyward-Bey was a virtual non-factor offensively in his first season in Pittsburgh last season, catching just three passes for 33 yards, following one of which, he actually ended up fumbling and losing the ball.
But with the Steelers dealing with the four-game suspension of Martavis Bryant to start the season, he was asked to step up to serve as the third wide receiver along with Antonio Brown and Markus Wheaton, and he did, finding early season success outside of a miscue here and there, including a foot out of bounds in the end zone that took away a potential touchdown.
Over the course of the year, Heyward-Bey caught 21 passes for 314 yards in addition to two touchdowns. His 15 yards per reception mark is actually the second-highest of his career, and that number only fell .2 yards shy of the mark.
The vast majority of his production came with Bryant out, of course, catching 17 passes for 219 yards and two touchdowns during the first five games of the season. Over the course of the next seven games, he caught just one pass. In the season finale, however, he came through with a big 66-yard reception on a third-down play.
Heyward-Bey also pitched in with a key 58-yard reception in the Divisional round against the Broncos, which was one of four receptions for him on the season that went for at least 40 yards—a rather impressive ratio in terms of his total volume of play.
Of course, the former first-round pick who has remade himself as a blue-collar sort of player has also been instrumental in the success of the team’s coverage units over the past two seasons, and he recorded six tackle in 2015, after seven the year before. As the most established run-blocking wide receiver on the team, he has even found himself as the line wideout in 13 or 22 personnel formations.
Free Agency Outlook: The Steelers will never shy away from valuing a veteran presence in their wide receiver room, which is a pattern that they have followed for many years. Heyward-Bey has served in that capacity for the past two seasons, and has endeared himself to his teammates while trying to help them grow on and off the field.
He showed in 2015 that, while he is more than capable of accepting a supporting role, he does have the ability to contribute when called upon, and he remains a strong asset on special teams, particularly as long as that exceptional speed remains intact.
What the Steelers have to decide, however, is whether or not they have room for him in their plans going forward with Brown, Bryant, Wheaton, and now Sammie Coates all needing to see playing time. Even if he is re-signed to yet another qualifying contract, he will likely have to compete to earn his spot on the 53-man roster harder than he has had to the past two years.