This shouldn’t come as a shock to anybody who has been following the trends over the past decade-plus, but the body types of NFL athletes have been gradually changing. Even in arguably the most surprising places, such as the defensive line.
That’s a problem for a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers—if they allow it to be one. And that will be telling as they move on into an important chapter with the start of a rebuild of their defensive line. While they still have 33-year-old Cameron Heyward playing at a high level, his career will wind down, and what else they have is not quite clear. Finding another player like him won’t be a simple matter because of this, Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette said last week.
“What I’m telling you is finding your next Cam Heyward is gonna be really, really hard”, he said during an appearance on 93.7 The Fan last week with Andrew Fillipponi and Chris Mueller. “I think eventually you’ve just got to come to the conclusion, ‘Okay, we’re gonna draft good football players, they might be like DeMarvin Leal, we’ll find a place to use him and then that’ll be it’”.
He brought this up in conversation about Pitt’s Calijah Kancey, who at the time had not run at the NFL Scouting Combine, but whom Fittipaldo predicted would dominate. Even still, he wondered about the value to the Steelers in adding him and where it would make sense.
“You’re picking at 17, you probably have to play that guy 80 percent of the snaps”, he remarked, “whereas a guy like Kancey maybe it’s better value if you get him at 32 or 49 and you could say, ‘Okay, he’s a part-time starter, he doesn’t play all the time, but we’re just gonna find a way to use him and he’ll be really, really good’”.
Kancey did dominate the Combine, as Fittipaldo expected he would, actually setting a new record for the event in the 40-yard dash for defensive tackles. But could the Steelers realistically find a way to get him on the field for 80 percent of the snaps? And how important is that if they were to consider drafting him at 17?
Approached another way, should they really spend much time looking for ‘the next Cam Heyward’, if his type has become so scarce? In truth, his type has always been scarce—that’s why he is a perennial Pro Bowler. You don’t often find men his size who can put up double-digit sacks with such a well-rounded game.
Even if the body type for the position remained stagnant, it would still be a tough task finding a true successor. But you always have to try as long as you’re going to keep playing football. There’s never going to be another Heyward. But that doesn’t mean they can’t find another damn good player one day.