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Looking for context in the Cam Heyward contract issue

Cam Heyward seems to be feeling a bit underappreciated. I can’t say that I blame him. Being a defensive lineman in a 3-4 base defense for Pittsburgh, underappreciated is standard operating procedure. The list of players that did the dirty work enabling the linebackers to run free and make splash plays is long and only truly remembered by Steelers fans. We of the Black and Gold faithful hold not only the names of Hampton, Smith, and Keisel in high regard, but also the backups like a Chris Hoke that would come in and plug up the line with the best of them.

Cam played hurt last year and was nowhere near 100 percent. I’ve detailed his injury in a previous article, and it was significant. Most mortals would struggle just getting from the bed to the couch, but Cam was out there sacrificing his body down after down. It was a good thing for the team that he did. In his absence, the Steelers ranked near the bottom of the league in both rushing yards and yards per carry allowed. When he reentered the lineup, injury and all, the following weeks had the team back in the top ten for both categories.

The narrative didn’t say that, however. The narrative was that Cam was showing his age and starting to slow down. His injury seemed to be forgotten, and all people saw was that his normal rate of production was down. There were discussion threads online that he should retire, or possibly be a cut candidate given his cap hit for 2024. Cam isn’t having any of that, and when questioned, stated that he is in the top five at his position right now.

Considering the OTAs holdout and statements that both sides aren’t close yet, the context of that soundbite is important. Is Cam saying he deserves to be paid more than the top five defensive linemen in the league for his next contract, or is he saying he should be recognized by the organization and fans as a top five current player with plenty of gas left in the tank? Those are two different lists. I did a search of the interwebs and compared rankings of play for 2023. I found a fairly consistent list repeated for who most consider the best at the position:

1.        Chris Jones -Chiefs

2.        Dexter Lawrence – Giants

3.        Quinnen Williams – Jets

4.        Derrek Brown – Panthers

5.        Jeffrey Simmons – Titans

Now, before you get mad and argue with this ranking, it’s not my opinion. I know Chris Jones is a great player, but I’m going to be honest, the rest are just gray faces to me. Unless the Steelers are playing one of those other teams listed, I would consider it cruel and unusual punishment to suffer through watching a game. Is Dexter Lawrence really that good? No clue. Never seen him play. I’ll find out this season since the Giants are on the schedule. Same goes for the others on this list. I’ll see you when I see you.

How these players are paid does not correlate with their rankings on play, except for Jones:

1.        Chris Jones $31.75M APY – 1st in league

2.        Dexter Lawrence $22.5M APY – 9th in league

3.        Quinnen Williams $24M APY – 5th in league (tied)

4.        Derrick Brown $24M APY – 5th in league (tied)

5.        Jeffrey Simmons $23.5M APY – 7th in league

There is another important number that should be considered with this list, and that is age:

1.        Chris Jones – age 30

2.        Dexter Lawrence – age 26

3.        Quinnen Williams – age 26

4.        Derrick Brown – age 26

5.        Jeffrey Simmons – age 26

Cam is 35, which unfortunately is not the category that you want to be the clubhouse leader when it comes to the NFL. Another unfortunate truth in the NFL is that a team can’t pay a player for what they’ve done in the past, but for what they could do in the future. Cam’s current contract sits at $16.4M APY, which is well below this consensus of best players earn in a year.

Reading between the lines as I search for context on Cam’s soundbite, I don’t believe he is stating that he’s coming to the table demanding a salary that gets him in the top five of highest paid players for the position. Cam is a smart guy, and I’m sure he realizes at age 35 and going into his final contract, that is just not reality.

But, I think he’s heard certain media and fanbase chatter saying he should take a pay cut to stay with the Steelers, or be released in extreme circumstances. Considering the all-out effort he gave last year while playing in severe pain, his feelings are in line with his side of the ball, defensive. I can understand, and I think everyone that works for a living can as well. No one wants to give everything they have to a job only to be told they should take a reduction in pay. The old country song “Take this job and shove it” springs to mind. To give the “take a discount” crowd some more thoughts to consider, PFF did a projected ranking of what the best will be for the upcoming season, and Cam gets some well earned respect directly in that top five.

PFF Interior Defender Rankings: Top 32 ahead of the 2024 NFL season

Chris Jones, Kansas City Chiefs. …
Dexter Lawrence New York Giants
Quinnen Williams, New York Jets. …
Derrick Brown, Carolina Panthers. …
Cameron Heyward, Pittsburgh Steelers. …
Every player has an ego of some sort, it’s required to be great. Cam is no exception, even nice guys need that chip on their shoulder to get the fire going. I agree with him, he should not take a pay cut. Cam should also not be expecting a giant pay raise going into his final contract at an age when most people in his position have already left the game. I hope the Steelers offer him a contract that eases the salary cap hit this year along with a bump that gets him closer to that $20M APY. We will know more on how both sides are feeling when mandatory minicamp starts on June 11th, and if Cam is there as a full participant.

I’m not a numbers guy, and it’s a good thing I don’t work in the front office, because I would want to give Cam all the money I could because of what type of player and person he has been for the team. Given the recent back and forth, perhaps Cam would take a little less if some of the practice sleds in camp have Gerry Dulac’s likeness on them.

Hopefully, Cam and the Steelers work out a deal that gives both parties what they need, and he remains injury free, balls out the next few years, helps the transition of rebuilding the D-line, and retires with only ever wearing the Black and Gold. It’s a fairy tale ending, but sometimes they do come true.


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