A Blast from the Past: First Round, Part 2
In 2011 the Steelers went with defense for the first pick, and chose a seemingly solid and safe pick, DE Cameron Heyward. It was, of course, the next to last pick of the first round, and various of the players they might have taken (or people wished they would have taken) were gone. That said, however Steeler Nation may have felt about the pick (and the reviews were definitely mixed) the Steelers, as they did this year with Artie Burns, didn’t hesitate an instant before handing over their pick. So they were pleased, anyhow.
But as the previous description indicates, this wasn’t a sexy pick. The presumption was that Heyward would be fine, and given that Aaron Smith was nearing the end of his career, with Brett Keisel not too far behind, the Steelers definitely had some shoes to fill. Here are the sorts of things which were being said at the time:
The Steelers did a nice job of drafting for value, which is usually the case with this team.
Oh, modified rapture! He gave the whole class a B.
They are getting old on the defensive line, so this makes sense. I think this kid will be a steal.
That’s all I’m going to give you. Pretty much every writer I found wrote some variant of “the Steelers’ DEs are getting long in the tooth, Heyward made sense.” Prisco was the only one I found of the national writers who was actually excited about the pick.
Along the way there have been questions about this pick as Heyward took longer than people expected to develop. I’ve even seen the “b” word (bust) on occasion. But Heyward really started to play to his first-round status in the past few years. Last season he had some unbelievable games, and IMO the only reason he didn’t end the season with a higher rating was that he was completely exhausted. There was no one who was playing well enough to spell him and Stephon Tuitt, so they played pretty much every defensive snap—976 of them, according to Pro Football Reference. Add to this the 140 special teams snaps, and that’s a lot of time on the field. In fact, his 1116 total snaps were only exceeded by these guys:
- Ramon Foster and David DeCastro: 1153
- Marcus Gilbert: 1146
- William Gay: 1128
- Lawrence Timmons: 1120
In fact, it exposes my ignorance to realize I had no idea that established veterans such as these guys play a substantial number of special teams snaps.
So how did Heyward rank last season? Pro Football Focus thought he was great, and his grade of 84.3 put him at No. 19 in the league for “interior defenders”—a category which includes various sorts of defensive players.
So how did Heyward compare to other “interior defenders” taken in the 2011 draft, according to PFF? Here’s what I found. The first list is the DEs they count as interior defenders:
- J.J. Watt (Pick No.11) No. 2
- Muhammad Wilkerson (No. 30) No. 11
- Da’Quan Bowers (Pick No. 51) not enough snaps to rank
- Allen Bailey Pick No. 86) No. 51
- Karl Klug (Pick No. 142) No. 64
And the ones they count as edge defenders:
- Robert Quinn (Pick No. 14) No. 20
- Ryan Kerrigan (Pick No. 26) No. 36
- Adrian Clayborn (Pick No. 20 ) No. 53
- Cameron Jordan (Pick No. 24) No. 6
- Jabaal Sheard (Pick No. 37) No. 7
- Sam Acho (Pick 103) No. 83
- Pernell McPhee (Pick No. 165) No. 10
Brooks Reed, drafted at Pick 42, is a linebacker now. Christian Ballard (Pick No. 106) only played two years, left during training camp, saying “football isn’t fun for me.” The other DEs (there were a total of 23 drafted) are all free agents at this point.
So the only “interior defenders” who rate higher than Cam Heyward were drafted ahead of him. If you also include the “edge defenders,” there are two exceptions to this, both in the AFC North—Jabaal Sheard of the Browns and Pernell McPhee of the Ravens. Or, more precisely, that’s who drafted them. McPhee, the steal of this DE class, now plays for Chicago, Sheard for New England.
Heyward is also a solid citizen. I’ve written about him before at great length, and so I will just note a few things. Heyward actually put some meat on the concept of “scholar-athlete.” He plans to teach school after he retires, or that was originally the plan. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he does so. He has a foundation, the Heyward House, which is “dedicated to impacting kid’s lives.” (It works with Kid’s Voice, Big Brothers/Big Sisters, and other organizations devoted to underprivileged youth.) He’s hard-working and completely unpretentious—a real “lunch pail,” blue collar kind of guy. It’s exciting to see him growing into his first-round status, and I look forward to watching him for many more years. Unless, of course, he quits to teach elementary school.
I ran across this video, and have linked it for your amusement. The NFL put a mic on Heyward for the 2013 final season game, so you can find out all the stuff he says. (“Let’s go” is a big one.) Actually, I expect it is carefully edited. But it’s fun all the same…