More than a decade into his career, I think it’s fair to say that Cameron Heyward has established himself as one of the great players in the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers, one of the most storied franchises in the history of the sport. And with a history as deep as theirs, it’s not easy for a player of this generation to enter that conversation.
But that wasn’t what was being talked about a decade ago. A first-round pick in 2011, the 31st-overall draft pick out of Ohio State, Heyward spent most of his first two seasons in observation mode, watching and learning behind established veterans along a highly proven defensive line.
“I was a bust. I was a full-on bust”, he recalled of the chatter that he would hear during that time in his career, speaking with Pat McAfee earlier today. Heyward did not enter the starting lineup until the fifth game of year three, in 2013, the year that they started the season 0-4 and head coach Mike Tomlin was looking for changes.
He has started every game he’s played in since then, which have come with Pro Bowl distinctions in the past five seasons and All-Pro in four of the five, but at that time, during his first two years, he was the young pup in one of the most experienced and tested d-lines in the NFL.
“I was playing behind a team that just came off of losing the Super Bowl”, he recalled. “They had two defensive ends, Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith. They had a first-rounder behind him, and then they had Casey Hampton in the middle”.
That first-rounder was Ziggy Hood, their first-round pick in 2009, 32nd overall, who was brought in after they won the Super Bowl. Both himself and Hood were drafted with the future in mind, understanding that Keisel and especially Smith were trending toward the ends of their careers.
Under different circumstances, Heyward is probably playing a lot more, a lot earlier. But he doesn’t begrudge how he was brought up—perhaps beyond the chatter among fans. “I had to learn. And I’m fine with that”, he recalled, later in the conversation calling that time both “vital” and “depressing”.
“There was a lot I had to deal with”, he added, speaking about his own personal growth. “I had to learn a lot about myself during that time”. It probably didn’t help that he is the son of Pittsburgh legend Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, and was indeed himself born in the city of Pittsburgh.
But he wasn’t a guy who was used to waiting for his opportunity to prove himself. And indeed, he likely had a lot of things to learn, particularly about how to play in John Mitchell’s defensive line within Dick LeBeau’s scheme.
But who can argue with the results? He is on a borderline Hall-of-Fame trajectory, and is coming off of a 10-sack, 89-tackle season at 32 years old, having played all 17 games, and exactly 1000 defensive snaps including the postseason. The same people who were shouting ‘bust’ a decade ago are now ready to complain if he doesn’t go into Canton in any year of eligibility.