I know this is getting awfully specific for a “best ever” list but CBS Sports is putting together an interesting history of the best ever at a specific first round draft slot. From #32 to #1 overall, they’re ranking the top five players ever drafted at that position.
And they named Cam Heyward as the best player to ever be selected 31st overall. In author Jared Dubin’s explanation, he writes:
“It takes a lot to stand out among the many great defensive linemen in Steelers history, but Heyward has done his part. In 10 NFL seasons, Heyward has notched 58 sacks and 86 tackles for loss, along with 138 quarterback hits. He’s been named a Pro Bowler four times and an All-Pro thrice, including two times to the first team.”
Heyward beat out Curley Culp and Tommy McDonald to nab the top spot. And it’s a well-deserved, though quirky, ranking. Heyward has been a dominant force along the Steelers’ defensive line for years now and over the past few seasons has finally earned national attention and recognition. Some of that has been due to the Steelers’ wise decision to change his designation from defensive end to defensive tackle. That got him away from 4-3 pass rushers who put up gaudy sack numbers on the edge. Since that change in 2018, he’s made the Pro Bowl in all three seasons and has once been named to the All-Pro squad. He also earned both honors in 2017.
Heyward was a steal of a first round selection back in 2011 and one of the last of the “old guard” rookies. Guys who sat on the bench for a couple of seasons before getting a chance to step on the field. He sat behind Aaron Smith, Ziggy Hood, and Brett Keisel (granted, Smith’s final year was 2011 and he played just four games), not starting a single game until 2013 when he became a full-time starter. Since then, he’s racked up 58 sacks, six forced fumbles, and even intercepted his first pass, picking off Daniel Jones in the 2020 opener.
Going way back to the day he was drafted, here’s what Kevin Colbert had to say at the time about the selection.
“Coach Tomlin talked to him and Art (Rooney) talked to him. His mother’s family is from Highland Park. Of course, ‘Ironhead’ (father, Craig Heyward) played for Pitt. There are a lot of ties and it was something we hoped could happen. You’ll have to ask him, but I’m pretty sure he was excited about the possibility of coming here. Again, it looks like the stars aligned for us today, and again we feel real fortunate. I hope and I’m real positive that Cameron (Heyward) feels the same.”
Fast forward to today and it’s safe to say both sides are excited about the pick and how it’s worked out. Heyward probably won’t end up in Canton, Ohio by the time his career ends. But’s locked in as a future member of the Steelers’ Hall of Honor and will be remembered as one of the best defensive linemen since the Steel Curtain Era. Arguably, he’s the third best defensive linemen the team has ever had behind only Ernie Stautner and the great Joe Greene.
Though no other Steeler so far has received top billing like Heyward, TJ Watt was called the fifth best 30th overall selection in league history. He has a good chance to someday take away the top spot from Sam Huff. Alan Faneca was named the second best 26th overall pick, losing out to Ray Lewis, while Santonio Holmes was deemed the fifth best selection at #25. You can follow along CBS’ updated list here as they work through the rest of the numbers.