Before the Pittsburgh Steelers held their mandatory minicamp earlier this month, few would have predicted that 2022 sixth-round pick Connor Heyward would be named the team’s “surprise offseason standout” by ESPN. A better guess might have been wide receiver Calvin Austin, who has been called the “biggest Day 3 draft steal”. Or rookie outside linebacker Tyree Johnson, whose “explosive edge talent” led one analyst to call him the Steelers’ UDFA to watch. Or even rookie running back Mataeo Durant, an undrafted free agent out of Duke who received the “largest UDFA running back contract” in franchise history.
But no, it’s a player who doesn’t yet have a clearly defined position who got the nod from Brooke Pryor, who covers the team for ESPN.
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Connor Heyward ‘Showed a Chemistry’ With Kenny Pickett
“It’s hard to be truly under the radar as Cam Heyward’s younger brother, but the rookie Heyward impressed in offseason workouts and showed a chemistry with first-round quarterback Kenny Pickett (with) a nice snag during a two-minute drill in minicamp,” offered Pryor, before noting that Heyward-the-younger “figures to be in a hybrid tight end/fullback role in an offense that values versatility in its skill players.”
The fact that Heyward has been “working mostly with tight ends and receivers,” per Pryor, is likely good news for Steelers fullback Derek Watt.
When Connor Heyward was drafted — three picks before the Los Angeles Rams selected Quentin Lake, the son of former Steelers safety Carnell Lake — the conventional wisdom was the Heyward and Watt would be competing for the same job, thereby threatening Derek Watt’s roster spot.
In theory, Watt’s place on the team is in jeopardy because he plays primarily on special teams and is scheduled to earn a $2.75 million salary in 2022, making him the most expensive player on offense this season (by salary cap charge), ahead of starting right tackle Chukwuma Okorafor ($4,333,333) and free agent acquisition James Daniels ($4,166,666).
But Watt insists his roster spot isn’t threatened by Connor Heyward. More likely, it’s third-string tight end Kevin Rader and projected fourth-stringer Jace Sternberger who have the most reason to worry.
Anyway, Pryor isn’t the only Steelers beat reporter who has taken notice of Connor Heyward’s skills. In his recent roster breakdown of the Steelers offense, The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly described Heyward as a “very well-rounded player,” one who could “very well be this year’s training camp phenom. He’s that good,” concluded Kaboly.
Other ‘Surprise Offseason Standouts’ From the AFC North
In case you’re wondering about the Steelers’ primary competition, ESPN has named tight end Isaiah Likely (Ravens), wide receiver Kwamie Lassiter II (Bengals) and safety Grant Delpit (Browns) as the other surprise standouts from the AFC North.
Likely is a rookie fourth-round pick out of Coastal Carolina and Lassiter is a rookie undrafted free agent out of Kansas. Delpit is a former second-round pick (2020) who appeared in 15 games last season and is projected to start for Cleveland in 2022. In 2021, Delpit recorded 66 tackles (43 solo), including three tackles for loss, one interception, three passes defensed and one forced fumble, as per Pro Football Reference.
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