In one sense, it’s not a category that you want to be in, because it is limiting, and defines you in a specific way. On the other hand, it still acknowledges your position within that framework. So I’m sure that Cameron Heyward will appreciate being included in the NFL Network’s list of the top 30 players over the age of 30—even if he probably would argue that he should be higher.
Not that he is low, by any means. In fact, he ranks fifth on the list, and is the second-highest-ranked defensive player behind only Chandler Jones, the rest of the top five consisting of Russell Wilson and Aaron Rodgers at quarterback, and Julio Jones at wide receiver.
Since battling injuries in 2016 and limited to just a handful of games, Heyward has taken his career to another level, particularly statistically, during the ‘back nine’ of his journey, so to speak. In the three seasons since, he has made the Pro Bowl each year, and has been recognized as a first-team All-Pro twice, highlighted by his 29 sacks over that span.
As dominant an interior lineman as there is in the AFC, Heyward has only improved with age: All three of his Pro Bowl nods and both of his All-Pro selections have come during the past three seasons. The 6-foot-5, 295-pounder capped his underrated 2019 campaign ranked No. 1 in stops (55) among defensive linemen and with a new career high in tackles (83, from 59 in 2013). Even with the team’s bumbling offense and inept QB play last year, the Steelers only narrowly missed the playoffs — in large part thanks to Heyward’s profound impact on the defense. Pittsburgh allowed the third-fewest yards per rush (3.8) in the league despite deploying a light box (six or fewer defenders) on the highest percentage of run plays (59.6%), per NGS. In simple terms: Heyward dominated the line of scrimmage with such impunity that the Steelers rarely had to overcommit resources to stop opposing backs. And that was with Stephon Tuitt sidelined for more than half the year.
The latter fact cited here is an interesting one that I was unfamiliar with, particularly with respect to how it compared to the rest of the league, although it is not particularly surprising. And if the Steelers can continue to employ it effectively, there is no reason to expect it to change.
The loss of Javon Hargrave in free agency will be felt, but so too will the return of Stephon Tuitt, who has been Heyward’s right hand to his left for the past six years. The two of them may find themselves competing for a Pro Bowl spot in 2020 if both of them are able to stay healthy.