Cameron Heyward

Steelers Expected To Exercise RB Najee Harris’ Fifth-Year Option

The Steelers are expected to exercise running back Najee Harris‘ fifth-year option prior to the May 2 deadline, per Mark Kaboly of The Athletic (subscription required). That maneuver would give Harris a fully-guaranteed salary of $6.66MM for the 2025 season (he is due to earn $2.44MM in 2024 on the fourth and final year of his rookie contract).

The running back market has notoriously grown stagnant in recent years, and Harris was one of the high-profile RBs to publicly voice his frustration with that trend. In June, Pittsburgh GM Omar Khan suggested that surging prices for quarterbacks naturally create the need to cut costs on other areas of the roster, and like his fellow top execs, Khan might not have an appetite for authorizing a lucrative second contract for a running back in light of the position’s high attrition rate, especially for workhorse backs like Harris.

Of course, the Steelers are in quarterback limbo at the moment, as 2022 first-rounder Kenny Pickett has struggled through his first two professional seasons, and Mitchell Trubisky is the only other quarterback under club control for 2024. But regardless of whether the Steelers add a notable QB contract to their books this offseason, the relatively small fifth-year salary for Harris in 2025 should be easy enough to absorb. Whether extension talks take place between now and the end of the 2025 campaign, however, is an entirely different story.

Mason Rudolph, who just finished a one-year veteran minimum deal, was inserted into the starting lineup in Week 16 after Trubisky struggled in relief of an injured Pickett. That switch coincided with a heavier reliance on the running game, as Harris tallied 72 carries over the final three contests of the regular season and racked up 312 yards (4.33 YPC) and four TDs in the process. Efficiency had been a problem for Harris, but that productive stretch helped him finish the year with a YPC over 4.0 for the first time in his career and underscored his potential upside. Whomever the Steelers hire as their next OC should have a productive RB tandem in Harris and Jaylen Warren, who was a UDFA in 2022 and who is therefore entering a platform campaign.

Another decision that Khan will have to make this offseason is not as clear as the call to pick up Harris’ option. We recently heard that stalwart DT Cam Heyward may be contemplating retirement following a 2023 season marred by a serious groin injury, and while Kaboly says Heyward would like to return for at least one more season (subscription required), the decision is not his alone. The Steelers can cut the six-time Pro Bowler and save roughly $10MM against the 2024 salary cap after accounting for dead money, but as Kaboly notes, ownership would probably rather eat Heyward’s salary than release him given what he has meant to the franchise.

In other words, if Heyward is able to continue playing, the team will welcome him back. Although Kaboly does not say so, it is presumably still possible that player and team work out a short-term extension to smooth out Heyward’s $22MM cap hit in 2024.

Steelers DL Cam Heyward Contemplating Retirement?

Steelers defensive lineman Cam Heyward, who has long been one of the best interior defenders in the game, is on the back nine of his illustrious career. Heyward himself has suggested that he may have already played his final NFL game.

When asked earlier this week what the future holds for him, Heyward said, “First and foremost, I have to see how my body feels. It’s been a rough season” (via Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette).

Indeed, Heyward played in only 11 games this season due to a groin injury he sustained in Week 1, making 2023 the first year in which he has missed any signficant action since a seven-game 2016 campaign. And his performance has taken a noticeable dip, with Pro Football Focus assigning him a 69.8 overall grade that, while strong, is nowhere near the elite levels he has attained in recent seasons. In fact, that is the lowest mark that Heyward has earned since his injury-shortened 2016 season, when he was given a 66.5 grade.

The surface-level stats are also lacking, as the two sacks, 33 tackles, and six tackles for loss he posted this year would still fall well short of his 2021-22 totals even if they were extrapolated over a full season. That diminished performance, combined with a season marred by a difficult injury, could certainly deter Heyward from returning for his age-35 campaign in 2024.

On the other hand, the 2011 first-rounder has earned Pro Bowl acclaim in each of the last six seasons, a stretch that also included three First Team All-Pro bids. So he may have another quality year or two left in the tank, especially if he can put this season’s health struggles behind him.

He is also under contract through 2024, though his $16MM base salary for next year is not guaranteed. He is due to carry a $22.41MM cap charge due to bonus prorations, which may be an untenable figure for the Steelers. If Heyward does choose to continue his playing career, the team could explore either a pay cut or a brief extension that lowers his cap hit.

Pittsburgh kept its playoff hopes alive with a victory against Baltimore in yesterday’s regular season finale. However, the club needs one of the Bills or Jaguars to drop their Week 18 contests today to qualify for the postseason.

AFC Injury Roundup: Colts, Ivey, Steelers, Wilson

The Colts battled through a number of injuries to beat the Steelers and remain in the playoff hunt for the AFC yesterday. Two key players in wide receiver Michael Pittman and running back Zack Moss were forced to exit the game early with injuries and failed to return.

Pittman was knocked out of the game with a concussion after receiving a hit from Steelers safety Damontae Kazee that resulted in Kazee’s ejection. Without his favorite target by far, quarterback Gardner Minshew was required to spread the ball out, completing passes to eight other players for the rest of the game. Though they were able to find success, Indianapolis will hope that Pittman can work his way through the concussion protocols quickly as Pittman is the target on nearly a third of the team’s pass attempts.

There was serious concern when Moss exited the game with an injury to the same arm that was broken around the start of the season. He was forced to leave the game due to issues with grip. With Jonathan Taylor missing most of the season thus far, Moss has taken the crown as the team’s leading rusher. Luckily, X-rays came back negative on Moss’ arm, so he should be able to return next week.

Here are a few other injury updates from around the AFC this week:

  • Joining fellow Bengals defender D.J. Reader, who was announced to be out for the season last night, seventh-round rookie cornerback DJ Ivey left yesterday’s game with a torn ACL that will end his season, as well, per Kelsey Conway of USA Today. The late-round pick out of Miami (FL) will see his rookie season cut short just as he was beginning to earn some more playing time in Cincinnati. He received a game ball last week for making a key pass breakup and recovering a fumble on punt coverage.
  • After Kazee was ejected, the Steelers were left with two backups in the game when Minkah Fitzpatrick left the game with a knee injury, according to Adam Schefter of ESPN. Fitzpatrick was able to walk off the field under his own power, but after a brief evaluation on the sideline, it was determined that he should not return for the second half of the game. Another starter, defensive tackle Cameron Heyward, will be a question mark to make a Week 16 appearance as he is reportedly in concussion protocol, per ESPN’s Brooke Pryor.
  • Lastly, from today’s games, the Jets were once again forced to turn to a new passer, this time Trevor Siemian, after starting quarterback Zach Wilson was forced to leave the game with a concussion in the second quarter, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN. If Wilson is unable to come back next week, it’ll likely be Siemian starting for New York against the Commanders.

Steelers Activate DL Cameron Heyward From IR

The Steelers are welcoming back one of their defensive captains. The team announced that they’ve activated Cameron Heyward from injured reserve. The defensive lineman doesn’t have an injury designation heading into tomorrow night’s game against the Titans.

Heyward suffered a groin injury in Week 1 that ultimately required surgery. After being given an initial recovery timeline of eight weeks, the defensive lineman was able to return to the field about seven weeks after his operation. Heyward returned to Steelers practice last week.

“I trust what they’re doing, and I know my body, and I know I’m up there in age, but I feel like I progressed pretty well,” Heyward told ESPN’s Brooke Pryor last week.

The 2011 first-round pick has spent his entire career in Pittsburgh, earning six Pro Bowl appearances and three first-team All-Pro nods in his 12-plus seasons with the organization. Prior to his injury this season, Heyward had only missed a single regular season game since the 2018 campaign.

Despite 2022 marking his age-32 season, Heyward was still plenty productive. He added another Pro Bowl to his resume after finishing with 74 tackles, 10.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. The veteran is still attached to a four-year, $65.6MM extension he signed with the Steelers back in 2020.

Steelers Designate Cam Heyward For Return

The Steelers’ defense is set to receive a major boost in the near future. Defensive lineman Cam Heyward returned to practice on Thursday.

As a result, his 21-day activation window has now been opened. The Steelers must activate him from injured reserve within that timeframe to avoid having him revert to season-ending IR. While today’s news means Heyward could be back in the lineup as early as Week 8, the team’s Thursday night game following that (Nov. 2) is likely the earliest point at which he will suit up, per Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Heyward suffered a groin injury in the regular season opener, and it was immediately understood he would be shut down for an extended stretch as a result. Surgery was needed, and an eight-week recovery timetable was in place at the time of the procedure. Bringing the three-time All-Pro back into the fold in time for the next game or so would fall in line with timeframe. Whenever it takes place, his return will be welcomed by the Steelers’ defense.

Pittsburgh’s underwhelming offense has understandably drawn signficant criticism this season, but the team’s defense has signficant room for improvement as well. The latter unit sits 30th in the NFL in yards allowed per game, and it is surrendering more than 142 yards per contest on the ground. Heyward should especially help in that category, though his double-digit sacks in each of the past two seasons prove he will make a major impact in the pass-rush department as well.

Heyward, 34, has been a mainstay of the Steelers’ defense throughout his 13-year career with the team. He has earned a Pro Bowl nod in each of the past six seasons, proving he remains one of the team’s most important contributors on either side of the ball. With one more year on his current deal after this one (with a non-guaranteed salary and a cap hit of $22.4MM), there will also be financial implications to Heyward returning to full health and continuing his elite form.

The Steelers have seven IR activations remaining, and bringing the Ohio State alum back will use up one of them. The same is true of running back Anthony McFarland, whose practice window was opened last week, as well as tight end Pat Freiermuth, who was placed on IR ahead of Week 7.

Minor NFL Transactions: 9/14/23

Today’s minor transactions:

Carolina Panthers

  • Signed off Raiders practice squad: CB Sam Webb

Philadelphia Eagles

Pittsburgh Steelers

Seattle Seahawks

  • Signed off Raiders practice squad: G McClendon Curtis
  • Signed off Buccaneers practice squad: OT Raiqwon O’Neal

With Jaycee Horn being placed on IR, the Panthers added some cornerback depth by snagging Sam Webb of the Raiders practice squad. The former UDFA got into all 17 games for Las Vegas in 2022, finishing with 36 tackles. He was cut by the Raiders at the end of the preseason before landing back on their practice squad.

Steelers DT Cameron Heyward To Undergo Surgery

5:55pm: Heyward will indeed undergo surgery, Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports. The procedure will take place on Wednesday, and it is expected to keep him sidelined for up to eight weeks. For the second straight season, therefore, the Steelers will exit Week 1 with a foundational member of their defense unavailable for much of the campaign.

3:00pm: The Steelers’ defense will be shorthanded while attempting to rebound from their Week 1 loss. Defensive tackle Cameron Heyward suffered a groin injury during Sunday’s game and he is facing a multi-week absence as a result, Mike Garafolo of NFL Network reports.

Garafolo adds that an IR stint is likely, and that surgery is an option being considered at this point. Players put on injured reserve are required to miss at least four weeks, and an absence of that length would deal a major blow to Pittsburgh’s defensive front.

Heyward exited the Steelers’ lopsided loss to the 49ers midway through the contest and a return was quickly ruled out. That signaled an injury of some significance could be revealed not long afterwards, and that has now proven to be the case. This will mark the first notable missed time for the three-time All-Pro since 2016, a testament to his durability during much of his 13-year Pittsburgh tenure.

A full-time starter since his third season with the team, Heyward has established himself as a stalwart on the Steelers’ defense. The 34-year-old has earned a Pro Bowl nod in each of the last six seasons, and he has posted double-digit sacks in three of those campaigns. His role in maintaining the team’s dominance in the sack department has been crucial while giving the Steelers an interior rush presence to compliment edge producers T.J. Watt and Alex Highsmith.

With 163 stops and 29 tackles for loss across the 2021 and ’22 seasons, Heyward also proven to be an integral part of the team’s run defense through the latter stages of his career. His absence will be acutely felt moving forward, as was the case last season when Watt was sidelined by a pectoral tear. His return to the lineup helped spark a late-season playoff push for the Steelers, and Pittsburgh will hope a similar situation can play out in 2023 if Heyward does end up missing considerable time.

Along the defensive interior, the Steelers will move forward with Larry Ogunjobi – who re-signed on a three-year, $28.75MM deal this offseason – as a key starter. Aside from the former Brown and Bengal, though, the team is generally lacking in experience up front. Second-round rookie Keeanu Benton and 2022 third-rounder DeMarvin Leal are among the young players who are in line for an increased workload in Heyward’s absence.

Largest 2023 Cap Hits: Defense

While the NFL’s top 2023 cap hits go to players on offense, a number of pass rushers are tied to lofty figures as well. None check in higher than Giants defensive lineman Leonard Williams.

Williams and Chiefs D-tackle Chris Jones carry high contract-year cap hits, while the Steelers’ two front-seven cornerstones each are set to go into training camp with cap figures north of $20MM. As the salary cap climbed to $224.8MM this year, here are the top defensive cap figures as camps near:

  1. Leonard Williams, DL (Giants): $32.26MM
  2. T.J. Watt, OLB (Steelers): $29.37MM
  3. Myles Garrett, DE (Browns): $29.18MM
  4. Chris Jones, DT (Chiefs): $28.29MM
  5. Aaron Donald, DL (Rams): $26MM
  6. Arik Armstead, DT (49ers): $23.95MM
  7. Cameron Heyward, DL (Steelers): $22.26MM
  8. C.J. Mosley, LB (Jets): $21.48MM
  9. Jonathan Allen, DT (Commanders): $21.44MM
  10. Shaquil Barrett, OLB (Buccaneers): $21.25MM
  11. Grady Jarrett, DT (Falcons): $20.63MM
  12. Marlon Humphrey, CB (Ravens): $19.99MM
  13. Shaquille Leonard, LB (Colts): $19.79MM
  14. Kevin Byard, S (Titans): $19.62MM
  15. Adoree’ Jackson, CB (Giants): $19.08MM
  16. Harold Landry, OLB (Titans): $18.8MM
  17. Justin Simmons, S (Broncos): $18.15MM
  18. Jamal Adams, S (Seahawks): $18.11MM
  19. Matt Judon, DE (Patriots): $18.107MM
  20. Quandre Diggs, S (Seahawks): $18.1MM
  21. Nick Bosa, DE (49ers): $17.9MM
  22. DeForest Buckner, DT (Colts): $17.25MM
  23. Emmanuel Ogbah, DE (Dolphins): $17.19MM
  24. DeMarcus Lawrence, DE (Cowboys): $17.11MM
  25. Eddie Jackson, S (Bears): $17.1MM

The Chiefs are working toward a second extension agreement with Jones, who is in the final season of a four-year, $80MM contract. A new deal with the star inside pass rusher would free up cap space, and DeAndre Hopkins is believed to be monitoring this situation.

As for Williams, the Giants had wanted to adjust his deal to reduce his eye-opening cap number. As of mid-June, however, no extension appeared to be on the team’s radar. The previous Giants regime signed off on the 2021 Williams extension (three years, $63MM). The Giants are also uninterested — for the time being, at least — in extending Jackson, who was also a Dave Gettleman-era defensive addition.

Donald is in the second season of a three-year, $95MM deal. The Rams gave Donald a landmark raise last year, convincing the all-everything D-tackle to squash retirement talk. A no-trade clause exists in Donald’s contract, which pays out its guarantees this year. Mosley remains tied to the $17MM-per-year deal the Mike Maccagnan regime authorized with the Jets. That contract, which reset the off-ball linebacker market in 2019, still has two seasons remaining on it due to the deal tolling after Mosley’s 2020 COVID-19 opt-out call. The Jets restructured the deal last year.

Washington now has two D-tackles tied to deals of at least $18MM per year. While Daron Payne‘s pact is worth more ($22.5MM AAV), higher cap hits on that deal will come down the road. Three years remain on Allen’s 2021 agreement. At safety, no team is spending like the Seahawks. In addition to the big-ticket deals authorized for Adams and Diggs, Seattle gave ex-Giants starter Julian Love a two-year, $6MM accord in March.

New Titans GM Ran Carthon attempted to give Byard a pay cut. That request did not go over well, but the standout safety remains with the team and has not requested a trade. Tennessee re-signed Landry on a five-year, $87.5MM deal in 2022; the veteran edge rusher has yet to play on that deal due to the ACL tear he sustained just before last season.

The 49ers can bring Bosa’s number down via an extension, which has long been on the team’s docket. As San Francisco extended Deebo Samuel just after training camp began last year, Bosa received back-burner treatment due to the fifth-year option. The star defensive end’s price undoubtedly went up during the waiting period, with the former No. 2 overall pick earning Defensive Player of the Year acclaim in the fourth year of his rookie contract.

Largest 2022 Cap Hits: Defense

After looking at this year’s top salary cap numbers on the offensive side of the ball, here is a rundown of the players counting the most toward their teams’ payrolls in 2022.

As could be expected, the salary figures here start below the quarterbacks. A few pass rushers, however, are tied to notable cap hits. Those numbers that check in within the top 20 leaguewide regardless of position. With the exception of true nose tackles and pure slot cornerbacks, every defensive position is represented here.

Here are the top cap figures on the defensive side for the ’22 season:

  1. T.J. Watt, OLB (Steelers): $31.12MM
  2. Chris Jones, DT (Chiefs): $29.42MM
  3. Joey Bosa, OLB (Chargers): $28.25MM
  4. Leonard Williams, DL (Giants): $27.3MM
  5. Aaron Donald, DT (Rams): $27MM
  6. Jalen Ramsey, CB (Rams): $23.2MM
  7. Deion Jones, LB (Falcons): $20.1MM
  8. Bud Dupree, OLB (Titans): $19.2MM
  9. Justin Simmons, S (Broncos): $18.85MM
  10. Javon Hargrave, DT (Eagles): $17.8MM
  11. C.J. Mosley, LB (Jets): $17.5MM
  12. Cameron Heyward, DL (Steelers): $17.42MM
  13. Robert Quinn, DE (Bears): $17.14MM
  14. Matt Judon, OLB (Patriots): $16.5MM
  15. DeForest Buckner, DT (Colts): $16MM
  16. Shaquill Griffin, CB (Jaguars): $16.44MM
  17. Tre’Davious White, CB (Bills): $16.4MM
  18. J.J. Watt, DL (Cardinals): $15.9MM
  19. Marcus Peters, CB (Ravens): $15.5MM
  20. Carl Lawson, DE (Jets): $15.33MM
  21. Eddie Jackson, S (Bears): $15.1MM
  22. Lavonte David, LB (Buccaneers): $14.79MM
  23. Budda Baker, S (Cardinals): $14.78MM
  24. Romeo Okwara, DE (Lions): $14.5MM
  25. Trey Hendrickson, DE (Bengals): $14.49MM
  • Illustrating how much the cap has climbed over the past several seasons, T.J. Watt is tied to a number nearly twice that of J.J. Watt, who has been tied to $16.7MM-per-year (a defender-record number in 2014) and $14MM-AAV deals as a pro. Trailing his older brother in Defensive Player of the Year honors, T.J. is signed to an edge defender-record $28MM-per-year accord.
  • Jones’ four-year Chiefs deal vaults from an $8.5MM cap number in 2021 to the league’s second-highest defensive figure this year. The standout defensive tackle’s cap hit accompanies Patrick Mahomes‘ $35.79MM number, which is well north of his 2021 figure, on Kansas City’s new-look payroll.
  • After two franchise tags, Williams scored a monster extension in 2021. The well-paid Giants D-lineman’s cap number this year is way up from his 2021 number ($9.4MM).
  • The Rams redid Donald’s contract last month, adding no new years to the through-2024 pact. The all-world defender’s cap hit actually decreases in 2023, dropping to $26MM
  • It is not certain Deion Jones will be back with the Falcons, who have jettisoned other Super Bowl LI cornerstones from the roster since the current regime took over in 2021. But they would save just $1MM were they to release the seventh-year linebacker.
  • To date, this represents the high-water mark for Mosley cap hits on his Jets deal, which at the time (2019) began a sea change for off-ball linebacker contracts. Mosley’s cap hit, on a pact that runs through 2024 because of the linebacker opting out of the 2020 season, increased by $10MM from 2021-22.
  • Hargrave is one of five Eagles pass rushers signed to veteran contracts. The ex-Steeler’s 2021 deal accompanies Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, Haason Reddick, and Fletcher Cox‘s new agreement on Philadelphia’s defensive front. As cap hits do not reflect average salaries, Hargrave is the only member of this quartet tied to an eight-figure cap number in 2022.
  • Quinn has also been connected to a departure, with the 31-year-old pass rusher skipping minicamp after it became known he would like to be traded away from the rebuilding team. His cap hit tops the Bears’ payroll. The Bears would save $12.9MM by trading Quinn, should another team sign up for taking on his full 2022 base salary.

This Date In Transactions History: Steelers Extend Cameron Heyward

Six years ago today, the Steelers gave Cameron Heyward his first ever re-up. The defensive lineman scored a six-year, $59.25MM extension with the Steelers, tying him to the club through much of his prime. 

Pittsburgh selected the Ohio State product with the 31st pick of the 2011 draft. It took a while for Heyward to settle into a starting role, but he never looked back after starting 13 games during the 2013 campaign. After combining for 12.5 sacks between the 2013 and 2014 seasons, the Steelers decided to lock him up. However, the deal left them with plenty of wiggle room as Heyward got just $15MM in guaranteed cash.

Heyward more than lived up to that deal. He earned Pro Bowl appearances in every season from 2017 through 2020, plus first-team All-Pro honors in 2017 and 2019. The veteran has only missed two regular season games over the past four years, averaging just over eight sacks per season. And, from ’17 through ’19, he was averaging roughly 10 sacks per campaign.

Last fall, just before Heyward’s would-be walk year, the Steelers inked him to yet another extension. This time around, it was four years for $71.4MM in total with a stronger guarantee of $20.25MM. At the time, there were rumblings that Heyward would approach Aaron Donald‘s six-year, $135MM deal. But, ultimately, he was on the wrong side of 30. He also didn’t have a ton of leverage — throughout the talks, he was vocal about wanting to stay in Pittsburgh.

Heyward’s four-sack season didn’t jump off of the page, but he was still strong in 2020. And, besides Donald, he has more total pressures than anyone over the last four years. There’s still lots of time left on his most recent deal, but it’s safe to say that the Steelers got their money’s worth on Heyward’s first extension.

Ben Levine contributed to this post.