The Pittsburgh Steelers knew entering the 2011 NFL Draft that they needed a defensive end to get into the pipeline in order to preserve the integrity of their 3-4 defensive front, which served as the foundation of their success during the 2000s.
They also knew that, in spite of the fact that they were set to pick 31st in the draft after reaching the Super Bowl the year before, that particular class was abnormally—extraordinarily—deep at the 3-4 defensive end position.
It is indeed something that was in discussion at the time, quite actively, to be sure. But five years on, looking back, it seems even more striking just how true that has ended up coming to be. The Steelers did indeed get their defensive end with the 31st overall selection with Cameron Heyward, the son of Pitt legend Craig “Ironhead” Heyward—but they were only one in a line of teams who also found their end.
It was a run that started just outside the top 10, when the Texans selected J.J. Watt, a promising physical prospect who had just two years of college production after transferring from Central Michigan as a tight end to Wisconsin as an end.
Watt was an instant starter as a rookie, accumulating 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks, but he took the league by storm in year two with 81 tackles and a league-leading 20.5 sacks. He was named the Defensive Player of the Year that year, and again in 2014 with another 20.5 sacks. This past season, he became the first player in NFL history to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors three times.
While Watt was a mighty starting point, well on the way to carving a path to the Hall of Fame, he was just the tip of the iceberg that culminated in Heyward with the 31st spot. At the 18th overall selection, the Chargers add Corey Liuget, also almost an immediate starter, and he has compiled over 200 tackles and 20 sacks in his first five seasons, along with five forced fumbles and 15 passes defensed.
With the 24th overall selection, the Saints found what they were looking for in Cameron Jordan, now a two-time Pro Bowler in 2013 and 2015, compiling 39 sacks, twice cracking double-digit numbers in his Pro Bowl seasons. He has also forced six fumbles, intercepted a pass, and defended 21 others.
Just ahead of the Steelers, the Jets hit on Muhammad Wilkerson with the 30th overall selection, a one-time Pro Bowler, yet a two-time All-Pro, with 36.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, and all the other stats you would hope for as yet another day one starter.
No other player from this first-round class had the journey that Heyward took, who could not crack the starting lineup until the fifth game of his third season, but he has proven to be everything that the Steelers were looking for as well, compiling 14.5 sacks over the course of the last two seasons as a starting point.
It was the likes of Watt, Jordan, and Wilkerson, all of whom made the Pro Bowl last year, who have made it so difficult for Heyward to receive similar recognition. Given the success of this group, it is easy to wonder if this is not one of the all-time great classes for the 3-4 defensive end, which is exactly how the Steelers for fortunate to land a player of Heyward’s caliber after 30 players had already gone off the board.