Cameron Heyward must be feeling awfully jealous these days. I think he realizes now that he is never going to win a get-off drill during his entire career as long as Pittsburgh Steelers Head Coach Mike Tomlin is conducting them and determining who got off the ball first, because the win always goes to his favored son.
Heyward has long joked that Lawrence Timmons, the first draft pick that Tomlin ever made as a head coach with the 17th-overall pick in the first round of the 2007 NFL Draft, was his first son. But the 11-year veteran inside linebacker finally left in free agency.
That opened a window for Heyward, only to see it shut closed in a hurry when the Steelers used their first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft—a decade later—on outside linebacker T.J. Watt, who appears to be now Tomlin’s second son, and now favored.
Now it is the rookie winning all of the get-off drills when Tomlin is around, as evidenced by a video taken by ESPN reporter Jeremy Fowler yesterday. Watt no doubt boasts impressive athleticism and burst, and does have a very good first step, that much is true. But I’m sure the veteran head coach is displaying deliberate favoritism as well.
Much of it would be justified, regardless. Since coming in, the rookie has done virtually nothing but impress. The younger brother of two NFL veterans already, he entered the league pretty much knowing beforehand the sort of things it takes to be a professional.
Despite the fact that he has only been playing the outside linebacker position—or on the defensive side of the ball, period—for three years now, his professionalism and knowledge has made his learning curve less steep than the majority of rookies, and that has allowed him to grow into his position quicker.
There are many factors at play here, from conditioning to diet to film study and more. Staying on top of every aspect of the professional football life has allowed him to take advantage of all of his opportunities, which is why he is expected to be the first rookie outside linebacker to start the season opener for the Steelers in decades.
He also has a chance to be the most successful rookie defensive starter since Kendrell Bell a decade and a half or so back. Ryan Shazier was a plug-and-play starter in 2014, but injuries sabotaged his inaugural campaign and he ended up coming off the bench by the end of it.
Much of the projected future success of this defensive unit lies on Watt’s shoulders, so the favored son status is as much hope as it is strategy and humor on Tomlin’s part. He does have the looks of a player who could justify the investment, but his first opportunity to truly start earning it comes on Sunday in Cleveland.