Cameron Heyward of the Pittsburgh Steelers put up double-digit sacks for the third time in his career, including for a second straight season, in 2022 at the age of 33. All of his other stats also align with his usual Pro Bowl, All-Pro levels, even if he didn’t get the same recognition he typically does.
Few see him slowing down. He’s got skin in the game, but pass-rushing trainer Chuck Smith doesn’t see Heyward slowing down, either. He’s worked with the big man for a number of years, and recently talked to Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about one of his star pupils.
“I think in this modern time, athletes can play longer because they’re healthier. Cam is the best example of that. He has years to go”, he said. “No matter where’s he’s at, he can rush and he can stop the run, and he’s doing it at a high level. Cam still has some years left in him”.
He also has two years left on his contract, including the 2023 season, so there’s that. But if he puts up another season like he’s had in recent years, there’s no reason to think he won’t be in line for another extension in 2024, albeit likely a short one. He’ll be 35 by the time his current contract expires. How does he keep himself relevant despite the advance of time?
“I think he constantly reinvents himself”, his trainer told Fittipaldo. “He pushes himself to change up his training. He’ll do an assessment at the end of the year and he’ll figure out what he has to do better. I think the thing about Cam is he works super hard. He’s in Pittsburgh going from fields to gyms back to fields, pushing himself every day. He eats healthy”.
The results speak for themselves. Over the past six seasons, he has 396 tackles, including 73 for loss. He has 53.5 sacks with 121 quarterback hits, six forced fumbles, two interceptions, and 28 passes defensed. He’s made the Pro Bowl every year in that span and the All-Pro list four times.
And all of this came after a pectoral injury that ended his 2016 season early. He was still just 27 years old at the time, but it could have taken his career in a very different direction. Instead, it only upped his game, perhaps motivating him to push himself even harder.
Still, how much longer can he realistically play? As Smith says, athletes are able to play longer as we learn more and more about taking care of your body at the highest possible level, and athletes have more and better resources than ever before to do just that.
Could he play into his late 30s? Even pushing 40? How could I possibly sit here and rule that out given what we have seen him do in just the past two seasons? He’s arguably still at the peak of his career. Maybe once we begin to see a decline we can have that conversation, assuming he doesn’t retire as J.J. Watt has.