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Steelers OTAs Takeaways: Heyward States Demands, Austin Adapting

Cam Heyward returned to the Pittsburgh Steelers facility while a few wide receivers made some notable comments about their standing.

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Pittsburgh Steelers Cam Heyward
Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward at the team's OTAs sessions, June 4, 2024 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — It’s the third week of offseason training activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. At this point in the process, much of it is monotony that we have seen in practice over the last few weeks, but Tuesday was highlighted by one thing that separated it from other days—Cam Heyward returned. And he had a lot to say. There were many other happenings on the football field, but a lot of the energy today is dedicated to Heyward, and rightfully so now.

Pittsburgh Steelers Cam Heyward

Pittsburgh Steelers DE Cam Heyward poses for a photo with HC Mike Tomlin, June 4, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

HEYWARD — STILL A TOP 5 PLAYER?

Is Heyward still a top-five defensive tackle in the NFL? That’s a question you can answer, but he still thinks he can be at the height of his play. Coming off that groin injury, his status is more in question than ever before. However, when asked what Heyward wants out of a new contract, he specifically mentioned that number, and it should be a guide to what he wants out of his new deal. That does not necessarily mean he wants to be Top 5 money, but he should want at least Top 15 money with that comment.

“I’m looking to be here,” Heyward said. “The value is what we decide, but I want to be valued at my position. I understand I came off a rough season, but I don’t think it’s a step down from where I can play. I think I’m at the top of my game. I’m still a top five player at my position.”

Again, that is a significant statement. He thinks he is one of the elite players in the NFL at his position, and well, more power to the man. Heyward wants to play for three more years. Here is the other step that complicates the process — how many 35-year-olds at any position other than quarterback end up getting large megadeals? It doesn’t happen. So, this is uncharted territory for the Steelers and Heyward in many ways, but he wants to make that history.

“There’s not a lot of history behind it, but for me, I look at it as I’m not looking to be like anybody else,” Heyward said. “My game is different from everybody else in this league, I like to think. I can play the run and the pass, and that’s where I’m different. But we’ll see what happens. There’s not a lot of history, but I’m here to make history, and I’m here to win another Super Bowl here and have a great season.”

I thought Heyward’s argument for why he was not dropping off made some sense, too. He pointed out Calais Campbell as an example of longevity at the defensive line position because Campbell won off power and technique. Heyward’s game has always been predicated on power and technique, so he thinks he can play high for a long time. The injury complicates matters, so Heyward will have to find a middle ground if he wants to stay with the Steelers.

Pittsburgh Steelers defensive tackle Cam Heyward at the team’s OTAs sessions, June 4, 2024 – Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

HOLD IN NOT RULED OUT FOR HEYWARD

The other notable tag that Heyward put on his situation is that he did not rule out a hold-in. A popularized stance in recent seasons, many players are taking the ‘hold-in’ approach to be around the team but will not participate in team activities. The Steelers experienced this twice, with T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick each going through that approach. Heyward acknowledged he had not thought that ahead, but it would be something that could be in play. However, he will be in attendance for OTAs, mandatory minicamp, and training camp.

“I have not even thought that far. I’ve been taking it day-by-day,” Heyward said. “I told my agent and we talked about it and we were cool with coming out here. I’ll be here for minicamp and then I’ll be there for training camp. I’m not sure what the work will entail. When we get there, we’ll cross that bridge.”

Heyward notably wanted to be around the younger players for leadership purposes. He had trained with Tyson Alualu and a trainer up in the North Hills. So, Heyward came into the facility in excellent shape and ready to go. The All-Pro desires to be a ‘one-helmet player’ and stay in Pittsburgh, but because he believes he has multiple years to play, he will not just retire if a deal does not get done with the Steelers.

It is possible that Heyward could suit up for another organization if the team decides not to extend him. Regarding salary, Heyward is set to make over $20 million this season, which makes him one of just seven players set to exceed that mark. Of course, Heyward is by far the oldest of the group. His age, the injury, and the risk a massive contract takes when giving it to a 35-year-old will all factor into Omar Khan’s decision.

NEW ROLE FOR AUSTIN?

The Steelers started practice on Tuesday as usual with their seven shots goal-line drill, and quarterback Russell Wilson dialed up … a corner route to 5-foot-9 wide receiver Calvin Austin III?

That one was incomplete, but the session ended with another, an out route from Kyle Allen to Austin that was complete on the side of the end zone.

Austin is many things. He’s blazingly fast, with the kind of speed that can take the top off defense in a flash. He’s also very elusive, with the same short-area quickness that has made him a good punt returner and a strong run-after-the-catch option.

But a goal-line threat? That’s not where that skill set usually plays up. You can’t take the top off a defense from two yards out. Nor do you have very much running after the catch to do.

Still, Austin is confident that he can make a difference in that area this season, and the Steelers seem to be on the same wavelength in allowing him to do so.

“Obviously, I have speed, but one of the things that I’ve definitely continued to improve on and one of the better skillsets of my game is my short-box quickness,” Austin said. “So any time I’m around that red zone, boy that’s my money time. That’s when you’re gonna see some of my best routes and some of the best use of my quickness on the field. Any time we’re in that short area, that’s where I start cooking.”

JEFFERSON SEES HIGH CEILING FOR PICKENS

George Pickens had 801 yards in his first pro season, breaking out as a rookie second-round pick. He then built upon that with 1,140 yards in his second season in 2023. Where is the ceiling for the talented Georgia product? Veteran Steelers receiver Van Jefferson said he thinks beyond what he’s shown so far.

“Watching him from afar, especially when I was at Florida, playing against him, he’s an unbelievable talent. He has all the tools to be the great receiver that we know he can be,” Jefferson said. “He can be a 1,500-yard guy, an 1,800-yard guy. He has that capability.”

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