In 2019 not a single Pittsburgh Steelers player was named to Pro Football Focus’ offseason list of the 50 best players in the NFL. Last year the Steelers had two, namely defensive lineman Cameron Heyward (No. 40) and outside linebacker T.J. Watt (No. 28).
On Monday and Tuesday, PFF released the first 20 names on this year’s list, and Heyward has taken a jump in the rankings, all the way up to No. 31, this despite the fact that he recently turned 32 years old.
“The later into his career he gets, the better Heyward seems to play,” notes PFF’s Sam Monson. “His best four seasons in terms of PFF grade have been his most recent four seasons, and Los Angeles Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald is the only interior lineman who has a higher overall PFF grade since 2019.”
Building on that thought, “the longtime Steeler’s 75 defensive stops lead all players at his position over the same period by seven, and he trails only Donald in terms of total pressures,” concludes Monson. “[The Rams star] is in a world all by himself, but Heyward has a good case to be seen as the best interior defender not named Donald in the NFL—and that’s an impressive achievement.”
Cam Heyward Leads the Best DL in the NFL
Even more impressive, perhaps, is that he’s the top interior lineman on what PFF regards as the No. 1 defensive line unit in the league, ahead of Washington and Tampa Bay, ranked No. 2 and 3, respectively. The unit includes standout defensive end Stephon Tuitt, as well as defensive tackle Tyson Alualu, who at 34 also seems to be getting better with age, having recently been named one of the Top 32 defensive linemen in the league, alongside Heyward and Tuitt.
Of course, Pittsburgh’s defensive line unit also features last year’s runner-up for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, T.J. Watt, who will join Heyward on PFF’s 2021 Top 50 list sometime later this week.
In 2020, Watt was ranked No. 28 but figures to rise higher this year, just as the Steelers are looking to extend his contract beyond 2021.
As for Heyward, he seems likely to remain a Steeler for the entirety of his career as he is already signed through the 2024 season. According to overthecap.com, he is scheduled to earn salaries of $1,075,000 in 2021, $6,500,000 in 2022, $15,850,000 in 2023 and $16 million in the final year of his deal. This year he will count $7,481,250 against the salary cap, just four percent of the team’s total allotment.
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Other Top 50 Talents in the AFC North
Meanwhile, three other players from the AFC North have already appeared on PFF’s Top 50 NFL Players list. Those are: Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (No. 37), Browns safety John Johnson III (No. 41) and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley of the Baltimore Ravens (No. 46.).
If you don’t recognize Johnson’s name, it’s because the Browns acquired him in free agency. He played his first four seasons in the NFL with the Rams, who made him a third-round pick out of Boston College in 2017.
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