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Saunders: Steelers Trading Cam Heyward? Get Real

Would the Pittsburgh Steelers really consider trading defensive captain and veteran defensive tackle Cam Heyward?

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Steelers DT Cam Heyward
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward before his team's game against the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 2, 2023. -- Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

I get it more than you can imagine. It’s early July, and there’s nothing to talk about in NFL land. But we all still have a job to do, and that means stories still need to be filed. Which led to the incredulous suggestion by Pro Football Network late last week that the Pittsburgh Steelers could trade defensive captain Cam Heyward, one of the faces of the franchise and longest-tenured players in the locker room.

Look, before I excoriate this ridiculousness with the passion that it deserves, let’s give PFN some credit. There is one reason the Steelers might want to move on from their veteran defensive tackle.

Heyward is seeking a contract extension, and heading into the final season of his previous deal. The big lineman is set to earn $16 million in 2024, and none of that salary is guaranteed. That’s one of the big parts of the negotiation of a new contract between Heyward and the club, as a contract extension could guaranteed this year’s salary and push its salary cap hit into future seasons by making it a signing bonus.

Doing that could give the Steelers the salary cap flexibility they’d need to make a big trade at the wide receiver position, for example. If they want to have the cap space available to land someone like disgruntled San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, extending Heyward would certainly be a move that could allow that.

From a salary cap perspective, trading him would do the same thing as extending him. The Steelers could get out from underneath all but $6.4 of the $22.4 million that he is currently scheduled to count for against the salary cap this season by trading Heyward.

Why would they do that instead of extending his contract? Heyward has said he wants to play for two or three more seasons, despite coming off an injury-wrecked 2023 season, and the length of a potential extension has become a sticking point in the talks between Heyward and the club.

RELATED: Sticking Point Emerges in Negotiations Between Steelers, Cam Heyward

If the Steelers want to hold a hard line in those negotiations, and don’t want to give Heyward additional years in an extension, trading him may seem to be the more palatable option to clear space for a big wide receiver move.

For those reasons, PFN listed Heyward as a player the Steelers could trade between now and the start of the season. There is at least a thread of sensibility there. But it all falls apart fairly quickly when you start to really break it down.

First of all, the Steelers don’t appear to be anywhere near a deal for Aiyuk, and there are precious few other receivers that could even theoretically be on the trade market that would require clearing such salary cap space.

Secondly, there are other ways they could clear that space that don’t involve trading their best defensive linemen, such as renegotiation the contracts of Minkah Fitzpatrick and/or T.J. Watt.

Furthermore, Heyward seems unlikely to hold out if he doesn’t get a new deal before the start of the season, and the team has little coming ready to replace him. 

Keeanu Benton should be in line for a larger role on the defensive line in 2024, but behind him are veteran journeymen Montravius Adams and Dean Lowry. Unless some of the younger defensive linemen like Isaiahh Loudermilk, DeMarvin Leal and Logan Lee take big steps forward this preseason, it’s hard to see the Steelers being able to replace Heyward’s production on the defensive line.

The point of making a move like trading for Aiyuk is to put the team in the best possible position to win now. There’s no way that move jives with trading the team’s best defesnive lineman, when there are less-painful ways to facilitate such a move.

That doesn’t even delve into the fact that the Steelers just don’t behave that kind of way when it comes to the icons of their franchise. They may not extend Cam Heyward’s contract. They may let him walk into free agency and finish his career elsewhere. They’ve certainly done that before, with players like James Harrison, Alan Faneca and others.

But to trade him at this point in the offseason? Just craziness. I know it’s July, but come up with something more plausible to talk about.