Cameron Heyward: Born to Be a Steeler
Admit it, you should have seen this coming.
He fits the Steelers round one draft methodology to a T. Low-risk prospect with a well-established body of collegiate work? Check. A player that isn’t some flavor-of-the-month draft board darling who sailed up the mocks after some sizzling combine workouts? Check. A guy who’s on the younger side of things, whom the coaches can mold to perfection? Check. A lunchpail kind of guy who won’t look like the sexy pick until he’s established himself a few years down the road? Well, we’ll see, but you get the point.
If you’re looking for a player to compare him to, LaMarr Woodley comes to mind. Another Big Ten guy, he entered the draft as a senior after a very productive career as a Wolverine, but because he was a DE/OLB tweener, he didn’t get much attention and was quietly taken by the Steelers with the 46th pick of the 2007 draft. All he’s done since has been to bookend James Harrison as part of the most fearsome OLB tandem in the league.
Or maybe the comparison is Aaron Smith. Ziggy Hood’s skill set as a DT at Missouri might make him more the successor to Brett Keisel, whereas Heyward looks like the stopper in the mold of Smith. Heyward matches up well against guards or tackles, stopping runners cold and getting pressure on the QB. He’s not a guy who’s going to fire off the edge at a hundred miles per hour, so he’s more a natural fit in the 3-4, where he can use his outstanding strength and leverage to push the pocket.
But when the Steelers drafted Heyward, the player I thought of was Heath Miller. Miller was the consensus top tight end of the 2005 draft, but he slipped from what could have been a mid-round one selection to the bottom of the round (pick 30) due to a sports hernia that did not allow him to work out in the spring. Heyward could have left Ohio State his junior year and been the top 3-4 defensive end in the draft, almost surely a top-20 pick, if not a lock for the top 15. His production as a senior didn’t taper off, so what accounts for Heyward sliding to the end of round one?
For one thing, the Steelers can thank their stars that Andrew Luck stayed put in Stanford.
Luck was is the superb Stanford QB who would have been all but assured to go number one in the draft. In the wake of his decision not to enter the draft, there was no clear consensus as to who the best QBs were. Each of the top half dozen or so (Newton, Locker, Gabbert, Ponder, Mallett, Dalton) seemed to have some sort of serious flaw, and none of them seemed worthy of round one draft grades. Clearly, there was more than an assessment of upside with four of those six going in the first half of round one: a sort of panic had set in.
That helped push down quality offensive tackles and defensive linemen to the playoff teams, licking their chops at the bottom of the round. As usual in the draft, patient teams are rewarded.
Another factor in Heyward’s slide was the usual influx of underclassman talent. Teams will often gamble on a player with less of a resume if they see even a year or two of off-the-charts performance. Sometimes that works, sometimes it backfires.
But another factor that kept Heyward from being selected higher was having Tommy John surgery on his elbow after his senior season. That didn’t allow him to work out at Indy, and teams are ever more focused on reps and stopwatch numbers. So maybe Heyward followed a draft journey similar to Heath Miller’s after all.
In my draft write-ups on defensive ends, I noted:
At 6’4 ½”, 295#, however, there’s no doubt that Ohio State’s Cameron Heyward best fits at DE. Heyward’s also in that draft area where Mo Wilkerson should be taken, 1b-2a, and if Wilkerson is seen more as the guy with small school upside, then Heyward is seen as a guy, like Clayborn, who comes out of an established Big Ten program but who’s been inconsistent. Heyward didn’t lift in the off-season due to elbow surgery in January, but looks plenty strong on film. Heyward, son of RB “Ironhead,” has tons of experience, and even if his numbers were down his senior season I think he’s a potential fit here and a guy I’d have on my R1 list. [Note: did not record earlier NFLDS ranking; now ranked 26th overall.]
Commentators note that Heyward’s inconsistent on tape, but he’s been the model of consistency from 2007-10 in tackles (32, 36, 46, 48) and sacks (2, 3, 6, 4). In fact, those numbers are close to those of Cameron Jordan (18, 47, 45, 51 tackles and 1, 4, 6, 6 sacks), who was drafted 7 picks earlier and was regarded pre-draft to be a top 20 player. Guys like Wilkerson and JJ Watt may have a big push to their 2010 totals, but they lack the depth of resume that Heyward has. Heyward returned an interception for a career high 80 yards against Miami.
As coach Mike Tomlin says:
“There are a lot of reasons to like Cameron Heyward,” said Coach Mike Tomlin. “He’s got a four-year body of work, not a one or two-year body of work. We are very familiar with this guy, very familiar schematically both in terms of what we do and what he was able to do at Ohio State. We are just extremely excited about him. He’s an impeccable young man, a really good football player.”
General Manager Kevin Colbert was equally effusive:
“We feel this is one of those special players, not only from a football standpoint, but this kid has impeccable character, work habits, toughness, you name it. It’s hard to find a hole with this guy. He is a special player. He is a special person.”
The Steelers wasted no time getting Heyward’s name on their card and running it up once their time was on the clock. They had the guy they wanted, and they knew it.
Heyward is the son of former NFL RB Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, who died at age 39 from chodroma, a tumor at the base of his skull. Ironhead was a running back at the University of Pittsburgh who was drafted 24th overall in the 1988 draft by the New Orleans Saints.
Heyward played for five different NFL teams in the 80s and 90s, accumulating over 4,300 rushing yards. Heyward was a back Steelers fans could love, playing a style of football reminiscent of Jerome Bettis: a punishing load, but surprisingly light on his feet, Heyward topped out at over three bills during his pro career.
Cameron recalled his father during the grueling final days of his illness.
"He was still writing to the others who were sick, encouraging them. It was like, there's this big thing facing him, and he wasn't worried about himself, he was more worried about encouraging others he had met who were facing tough times. That says a lot about the type of man he was. He was just someone who was so willing to help others."
Heyward, who has family roots in the Pittsburgh area, lived in Pittsburgh until he was 7, and often visited his grandparents there. “I have family that lives right in Highland Park and I make it back at least two times a year. I know Pittsburgh pretty well. Going back to my old stomping grounds in going to be fun. I was born right in the heart of Pittsburgh and I lived out in Monroeville.”
Cameron recalls his father’s outsized personality and sense of humor fondly, being carried into NFL locker rooms as a boy, but his father also had a reckless, partying personality. His mother, Charlotte, has inspired him to be more grounded and humble. He’s a guy who will play like a lion on the field, but he’s as quiet-spoken and thoughtful once the game is over. He’s been with his girlfriend Allie since his freshman year at college, and he’s less interested in the trappings of the “typical athlete” than with keeping the long view of what life has to offer.
Ohio State defensive coordinator Jim Heacock is on record as saying there was something unique about Heyward from day one. “I never had anyone quite like him,” said Heacock. “He’s almost perfect.” Heacock noted that every play in every game, and every play in all the drills, Heyward played all-out. Cameron, with his mom, Charlotte.