Heyward Now Likely Next NFL Interior D-Lineman In Line For New Lucrative Deal

The Kansas City Chiefs signed franchise tagged defensive tackle Chris Jones to a new four-year contract worth up to $85 million on Tuesday and now that he’s inked, sealed and delivered, it’s easy to begin wondering if one specific Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman might be the next interior defender to sign a very lucrative deal. That player I’m referencing is none other than Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, who is now in the final year of the five-year contract extension he signed with the team on July 21, 2015.

Whether or not the Steelers will ultimately get Heyward signed to a contract extension this summer is yet to be determined. However, it’s obvious that some talks have already taken place between the two sides and that the pre-pandemic plan was to get an extension done prior to the start of the 2020 regular season. The ongoing concerns about the pandemic and the impact it might ultimately have on 2020 NFL profits aside, odds are probably still favorable that Heyward will sign an extension prior to the start of the regular season.

Assuming Heyward does ultimately sign an extension in the coming months, many will likely wonder how greatly the contract that Jones signed on Tuesday will wind up impacting the deal the Steelers might be attempting to get done with their defensive captain. To better speculate an answer to that, it’s first particularly important to look at the specifics related to the contract that Jones just signed and break it down in its entirety.

Below is a complete breakdown of the base contract that Jones reportedly agreed to on Tuesday. As reported by Pro Football Talk, Jones did not receive a signing bonus as part of the new four-year contract. However, in lieu of a signing bonus, the first two years of Jones’ new contract are reportedly fully guaranteed. That amounts to $37.626 million, nearly half of the base value of the total contract. Roughly 70 percent ($55.75 million) is functionally guaranteed by the second year of the deal, according to PFT. The extra $5 million that Jones can earn in the next four years comes in the form of incentives and are reportedly related to his annual sack amounts.

Jones was tagged this offseason by the Chiefs and while he never officially signed the tender, his 2020 base salary matches what his franchise tag amount was to be, $16.126 million. Because Jones never signed his franchise tag, the deal is being framed by some as having a new money average of $20 million. Depending on how you want to look at it, if you consider the outstanding unsigned tag as old money, Jones’ new money average would be $21.2913 million, which would make him the second-highest paid interior defensive lineman in the NFL behind Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. A new money average of $20 million, however, would rank Jones third on that same list behind Donald and DeForest Buckner of the Indianapolis Colts.

Like was the case in the recently signed mega-contract by Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, Jones forwent strong cash flow early in his new deal for a better opportunity of earning the full base amount of it. Even so, Jones will need to play at least the next three seasons to hit his $20 million average in earnings.

Year Base Salary Prorated Bonus Roster Bonus Workout Bonus Guaranteed Money Cap Charge Cash Flow
2020 $16,126,000 $0 $0 $0 $16,126,000 $16,126,000 $16,126,000
2021 $21,500,000 $0 $0 $0 $21,500,000 $21,500,000 $37,626,000
2022 $22,374,000 $0 $0 $0 $0 $22,374,000 $60,000,000
2023 $20,000,000 $0 $0 $0 $0 $20,000,000 $80,000,000

So, how does the new contract that Jones signed affect a possible new deal for Heyward? On the surface, probably not much at all.

Prior to Jones even signing his new deal on Tuesday, Heyward’s new contract new money annual average was probably around $17.5 million to $20 million. Jones clocking in right at $20 million with his new money average, really shouldn’t have much of an impact on Heyward’s wants.

Heyward would likely want to exit an extension signing no worse than the fifth-highest paid interior defensive lineman in the NFL and new money average of $17.5 million would accomplish that. Additionally, a new money average of at least $17.5 million would make Heyward the second-highest paid player on the team behind quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the highest-paid defensive player ahead of outside linebacker Bud Dupree. In short, a new money average for Heyward between $17.5 million and $18.5 million feels right midway through the month of July.

Heyward is currently scheduled to earn a base salary in 2020 of $9.5 million and carry a salary cap charge of $13,251,250. Assuming the Steelers want to stick to their traditional contract structure and percentages of guaranteed money practices, they could give Heyward $20 million in total in 2020 as part of a four-year extension. And if $15 million of that $20 million came as a signing bonus, Heyward’s 2020 cap charge would drop by $2 million to $11,751,250.

Could, however, the Steelers switch course and do a contract extension for Heyward with structure similar to that of Jones, and thus virtually guarantee the next three years of it in lieu of a much weaker initial cash-flow schedule due to the uncertainty provided by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic? Absolutely, but such a structure would be paramount and a big news item considering how the team has structured non-quarterback deals for as long as I can remember. Additionally, Heyward would also have to be willing to give up the shorter-term and traditionally strong early contract cash flow that Steelers’ contracts usually always provide, in exchange for being guaranteed at least his next three seasons of money.

With Dupree now scheduled to play under the franchise tag in 2020 and it seemingly being nearly certain that the NFL’s 2021 salary cap number will, at worst, match the 2020 number, I think the chances of Heyward signing an extension of at least four years between now and the start of the 2020 regular season remain very strong, and no different than they were once the offseason got underway. Sure, both sides likely went into the offseason thinking an extension would be completed by now, but nobody expected the pandemic to play the roll it has.

Assuming an extension with Heyward does ultimately get completed in the next few months, I fully expect it to come with a new money average that will leave the veteran as one of the top five interior defensive linemen in the NFL. As for the actual structure of such an extension, that’s where I’m less certain and only because of what’s happened with the pandemic and the uncertainty it has created on the business side of the NFL.

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