How often is it that a defensive lineman plays the best football of his career as he approaches and hits the age of 30? Well, it’s probably not so rare, but whatever the frequency, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward has been the latest example, emerging as one of the top players at his position around the league.
Between his age 28-30 seasons (the last three years), he has made the Pro Bowl three times and been named first-team All-Pro twice. He has compiled 179 total tackles, 37 for a loss, with 29 sacks, 62 quarterback hits, four forced fumbles, three recoveries, and 12 passes batted.
And he’s also entering the final year of his contract as he embarks on his age-31 season. As Ray Fittipaldo points out, however, that is the same age at which both Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel received five-year contract extensions.
The reporter spoke to Heyward for an article, who relayed an anecdote of something that Keisel gave him. The early portions of his career overlapped with the latter stage of Keisel’s, so he was an important influence.
“I remember Brett telling me a few years ago, ‘you haven’t hit your prime yet’”, he told Fittipaldo. “I’m thinking, ‘I’m playing pretty good. What does your prime look like?’”. Evidently, it looks like the numbers that I just shared above, which rival or best the output of those under whom he apprenticed early on.
And of course he hasn’t been great simply on the field. He has been a worthy captain of the team for some years now. While there are now some new young players growing into the system, all of them ultimately look up to the veteran, Heyward, who is the longest-tenured member of the defense.
All of that is great, of course, but you don’t get big-money contract extensions for being a great leader. He has to continue to produce on the field. And at least for now, there is no reason to believe that won’t be the case.
“Hopefully, I’m taking the next step and there is more to come”, said the big defensive lineman about his future and what he will be able to deliver. “I know football doesn’t last forever, but I’m trying to hold off retirement for as long as possible”.
Perhaps his best asset has been his durability. Outside of one season, he has hardly even missed a single snap in his career due to injury. Others, Smith in particular, were severely bogged down by injuries in the late stages of their careers, but perhaps Heyward can avoid that fate.
His rock-solid performance in 2019, especially in light of Stephon Tuitt’s injury, had quite a bit to do with the rise of the defense as a whole. Finally complemented by a quality pass rush and secondary, he is hoping that his unit will be one that is capable of carrying the team, at least through to the end of his own career, however long that might be yet.