The Pittsburgh Steelers have signed defensive end Cameron Heyward to a six-year, $59.25 million contract with $21 million coming over the next eight months, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. Heyward is the fifth player to sign a large contract in the NFL over the past two days, following Justin Houston, Dez Bryant, Demaryius Thomas and Stephen Gostkowski on Wednesday.
Heyward was a first-round draft pick of the Steelers back in 2011 and has played in all 64 regular-season games during his four-year career. The former star at Ohio State University will be heavily depended upon in 2015 with Pittsburgh undergoing some serious defensive changes, including the departure of long-time defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. The Steelers also watched Troy Polamalu and Ike Taylor retire, while Brett Keisel was allowed to hit free agency.
Over the past two seasons, Heyward has become one of the best 3-4 defensive ends at rushing the passer. Heyward generated five sacks in 2013 before notching career-best 7.5 sacks in 2014, helping Pittsburgh to an AFC North championship. Heyward had a tough time cracking the rotation during his first two years with the Steelers, but has developed into a fine player.
Last year, Heyward was ranked as the sixth-best 3-4 defensive end by Pro Football Focus, slotting behind J.J. Watt, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, Calais Campbell and Fletcher Cox. The ranking was a stark improvement over 2013, when he was placed 19th out of 45 qualifying players.
Heyward was able to eclipse the contract signed by fellow 3-4 defensive end Corey Liuget this offseason in total value and years. Liuget was kept in house by general manager Tom Telesco of the San Diego Chargers, inking Liuget to a five-year, $50.2 million deal. However, Liuget was guaranteed $30.47 million in his deal, while we remain unclear on the full guarantees for Heyward.