The idea that Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Cameron Heyward will compete for a starting job has been floating around since last offseason, when Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette touted that belief fervently. Nothing much was ever made of it at the time.
This year, the argument has been even louder; in fact, I wrote about it last month when Jim Wexell added to it at Steel City Insider. Back then, Wexell wrote of a “scuttlebutt”—adding that there was nothing official—that Heyward would be battling incumbent Ziggy Hood for the starting left defensive end job once training camp rolls around.
At the time, I more or less dismissed the idea that a serious battle for a starting job would take place along the defensive line, but suggested that he could earn himself a higher snap count entering his third season.
I cited the marginal statistical production that he was able to muster relative to his limited snap count and the fact that Hood will be depended upon to be a starter down the road again anyway as reasons that I believed that nothing legitimately competitive will ever come of the whispers.
Recently, however, Bob Labriola mentioned Heyward on the Steelers’ website on their Talkin’ Steelers audio segment, and he did not pull any punches in his belief that not only is Heyward a better player than Hood, but that he will show it this preseason and taking Hood’s starting position:
I think Cam Heyward takes Ziggy Hood’s starting job this summer. The perception of him outside the organization has been inaccurate. I think this kid is really coming along. He is figuring it out and cutting down on some of the mistakes that he made in his previous seasons—mistakes of emotion, getting too fired up—because defensive end in this system is a control position, you have to be where you’re supposed to be when you’re supposed to be there. In his youth he would get exuberant, maybe throw an offensive lineman here or there and create a gap. A little Buckeye would come out. I think now he is figuring it out. I think he’s a better player than Ziggy Hood, and I think we end up seeing that, maybe by the end of the preseason.
So are Wexell and Labriola right? Will we actually see a legitimate training camp battle between these two former first round picks for one starting spot, even if Ziggy Hood ultimately wins that battle?
Ralph Paulk of The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review does not seem to think Heyward will be starting this season, saying that “he isn’t likely to supplant Ziggy Hood or Brett Keisel in the starting lineup”. Pro Football Talk does not believe that he will either. Neither does Pro Football Focus—however, they believe, as I wrote yesterday, that “he has the ability to be a high quality end” and that starting Hood over him “looks almost like a team hoping a clear first-round bust can be disguised by playing time”.
Many people have written on this topic, and nobody actually has a solid answer. Fortunately, training camp is just around the corner, and, as Wexell said, “training camp? That’s for the positional battles”.
We tend to improperly make assumptions based on what we see in OTAs and minicamps, sometimes forgetting that these spring drills do not necessarily correlate with what will unfold in the summer. Just because we do not see any signs of something in the spring does not mean that there are no plans for it in training camp.
Heyward did not take any of Hood’s reps in the spring—although he did take some of Keisel’s—and due to extenuating circumstances Mike Adams never got a look at left tackle, but we cannot simply conclude that those positions are locks entering the most critical part of the offseason. While running back may be the only obvious spot legitimately up for grabs, the recent chatter about Heyward is certainly piling up on the eve of training camp.