The offseason is inevitably a period of projection and speculation, which makes it the ideal time to ponder the hypotheticals that the Pittsburgh Steelers will face over the course of the next year, whether it is addressing free agency, the draft, performance on the field, or some more ephemeral topic.
That is what I will look to address in our Buy or Sell series. In each installment, I will introduce a topic statement and weigh some of the arguments for either buying it (meaning that you agree with it or expect it to be true) or selling it (meaning you disagree with it or expect it to be false).
The range of topics will be intentionally wide, from the general to the specific, from the immediate to that in the far future. And as we all tend to have an opinion on just about everything, I invite you to share your own each morning on the topic statement of the day.
Topic Statement: Cameron Heyward will play all five years of his current contract through the 2024 season without taking a pay cut or being cut (or retiring).
Explanation: There isn’t a defensive player since Troy Polamalu retired who better personifies what Steelers defense and Steelers football is all about than Cameron Heyward. There was never a doubt in my mind that the team wouldn’t get him locked up. Signed to a new four-year extension that carries him through his age-35 season, however, there is some room for doubt as to whether or not he will make it to the end of his deal.
Heyward has a few things going for him, first and foremost being his health. Outside of a rash of injuries that culminated in a torn pec that cost him most of the 2016 season, he has been an ironman-type player. He consistently plays about 80 percent of the team’s snaps or more per season.
What’s more, he has had the three best seasons of his career since that injury, without missing a game (due to injury; he sat out the 2017 season finale due to the team resting some key veteran starters). So not only has he shown that the injury left him no worse for wear, he is still balling out into his 30s.
Importantly, there is precedent for defensive ends playing into their mid-30s. The Baltimore Ravens have to believe this. They just traded for the 34-year-old Calais Campbell this year and gave him an extension. There’s still Steve McLendon plugging away, and Everson Griffen and Ndamukong Suh and Geno Atkins and Brandon Graham Linval Joseph and Gerald McCoy and Jurrell Casey (and the rest of Heyward’s defensive end class) who are still balling into their 30s.
But even Campbell last year was a ‘young’ 33, and it wasn’t a great season for him, statistically. The body starts to break down in this type of athletic environment, at this position, as you get into your 30s, and expecting to make it halfway to 40 is pushing it.
The Steelers tried this with Aaron Smith and Brett Keisiel, giving them extensions at the age of 30 or 31. Smith actually made it to his age-35 season, but he only played in 15 games over his past three seasons, and if he had Heyward’s contract, he probably would’ve been released. Keisel actually played until he was 36, but not under his original high-value extension. This question isn’t just about durability but skill. If Heyward isn’t playing like Heyward four years from now, he’s not going to keep the salary he has if it’s a cap issue (and knowing the Steelers, it will be).
And, of course, there’s always the possibility that he chooses to retire before then. Especially if they win a championship in between.