Ranking season continues on with training camps still at least three weeks away from getting underway and ESPN.com has now begun their positional series for 2020. On Tuesday, ESPN.com released their rankings of the top 10 inside defensive linemen for the 2020 season and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cameron Heyward made the cut just outside the top 5.
According to ESPN.com, more than 50 league executives, coaches, scouts and players were asked to help us stack the top 10 players at 11 different positions. Voters gave their best 10 to 15 players at a position, then the results were compiled and the candidates ranked based on number of top-10 votes, composite average, interviews and research. Ties were broken by isolating the two-man matchup with additional voting and follow-up calls.
The list of top 10 edge rushers for 2020 includes Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams at the top and he’s followed by Chris Jones of the Kansas City Chiefs and Fletcher Cox of the Philadelphia Eagles. DeForest Buckner of the Indianapolis Colts and J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans round out the top five interior defensive linemen for 2020.
Here is the synopsis on Heyward not making the top 10 for 2020:
Five summers ago, Heyward signed a $60 million extension with Pittsburgh. Now, Heyward is playing well enough to re-up for another payout.
In 2019, Heyward’s nine sacks, six pass deflections and 71 tackles netted a stellar 91.5 Pro Football Focus grade and triggered a third straight Pro Bowl.
Some voters placed Heyward on the back end of the top 10, preferring the athleticism of others. But as far as complete players with savvy and strength, there aren’t many better.
“So technically sound that he can handle anything,” said one NFL defensive coach. “When he’s on his technique, he can’t be stopped. It’s not always athlete versus athlete with him because he’s so smart. He has athletic arrogance that he probably shouldn’t have because he’s not an elite athlete.”
That good arrogance comes out inside the Steelers’ building, where Heyward will forecast he’s going to beat up on a decorated offensive guard — and then does just that on Sunday.
On the surface, that doesn’t seem like a bad quip about Heyward. However, the remark about him not being an elite athlete is a bit strong and especially when you watch him run down plays from behind past the line of scrimmage. For a guy his size and his age, Heyward has more than adequate athleticism.
Cam Heyward sets the gold standard for effort plays. And it resonates to the rest of the Steelers' front. Cut up of the best effort plays of his career, like this 34 yard tackle on Frank Gore. #Steelers https://t.co/d2NRHiVNZe pic.twitter.com/XYzYpx3mNs
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) June 3, 2020
While Heyward being ranked sixth in this top 10 list for 2020 is surely a huge honor, one could make a strong argument that he should be a spot or two higher. Heyward has a half sack more than Buckner does over the course of the lat four seasons and the last time I looked, the Colts defensive lineman has yet to be named All-Pro. Heyweard, on the other hand, earned his second All-Pro honor just last season and was a Pro Bowler again as well.
While the fifth-ranked Watt is still a fine, fine player, he probably best fits in the EDGE rusher category more than he does the interior defensive lineman one. That note aside, Watt has played in just 32 of a possible 64 regular season games over the course of the last four season and in only one of those seasons did he play in more than 8 games. While once the best defensive player in the NFL, is Watt still a top 5 player entering 2020, or more so of one than Heyward?
At the very least, Heyward should be ranked higher than Buckner and that would put him in the top 5, his very rightful spot, in my opinion.
Come the start of the 2020 regular season, Heyward, who is now in the final year of his current contract, may have signed a contract extension and if so, it’s likely to result in him being one of the top 5 highest-paid interior defensive linemen in the NFL.
In case you’re curious, below are this year’s top 10:
1. Aaron Donald, Los Angeles Rams
2. Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs
3. Fletcher Cox, Philadelphia Eagles
4. DeForest Buckner, Indianapolis Colts
5. J.J. Watt, Houston Texans
6. Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers
7. Arik Armstead, San Francisco 49ers
8. Akiem Hicks, Chicago Bears
9. Grady Jarrett, Atlanta Falcons
10. Kenny Clark, Green Bay Packers