Historically Rich DE Class Helped Steelers Land Cameron Heyward In 2011

of the Pittsburgh Steelers during training camp on July 29, 2011 at St Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)

The Pittsburgh Steelers knew entering the 2011 NFL Draft that they needed a defensive end to get into the pipeline in order to preserve the integrity of their 3-4 defensive front, which served as the foundation of their success during the 2000s.

They also knew that, in spite of the fact that they were set to pick 31st in the draft after reaching the Super Bowl the year before, that particular class was abnormally—extraordinarily—deep at the 3-4 defensive end position.

It is indeed something that was in discussion at the time, quite actively, to be sure. But five years on, looking back, it seems even more striking just how true that has ended up coming to be. The Steelers did indeed get their defensive end with the 31st overall selection with Cameron Heyward, the son of Pitt legend Craig “Ironhead” Heyward—but they were only one in a line of teams who also found their end.

It was a run that started just outside the top 10, when the Texans selected J.J. Watt, a promising physical prospect who had just two years of college production after transferring from Central Michigan as a tight end to Wisconsin as an end.

Watt was an instant starter as a rookie, accumulating 56 tackles and 5.5 sacks, but he took the league by storm in year two with 81 tackles and a league-leading 20.5 sacks. He was named the Defensive Player of the Year that year, and again in 2014 with another 20.5 sacks. This past season, he became the first player in NFL history to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors three times.

While Watt was a mighty starting point, well on the way to carving a path to the Hall of Fame, he was just the tip of the iceberg that culminated in Heyward with the 31st spot. At the 18th overall selection, the Chargers add Corey Liuget, also almost an immediate starter, and he has compiled over 200 tackles and 20 sacks in his first five seasons, along with five forced fumbles and 15 passes defensed.

With the 24th overall selection, the Saints found what they were looking for in Cameron Jordan, now a two-time Pro Bowler in 2013 and 2015, compiling 39 sacks, twice cracking double-digit numbers in his Pro Bowl seasons. He has also forced six fumbles, intercepted a pass, and defended 21 others.

Just ahead of the Steelers, the Jets hit on Muhammad Wilkerson with the 30th overall selection, a one-time Pro Bowler, yet a two-time All-Pro, with 36.5 sacks, nine forced fumbles, and all the other stats you would hope for as yet another day one starter.

No other player from this first-round class had the journey that Heyward took, who could not crack the starting lineup until the fifth game of his third season, but he has proven to be everything that the Steelers were looking for as well, compiling 14.5 sacks over the course of the last two seasons as a starting point.

It was the likes of Watt, Jordan, and Wilkerson, all of whom made the Pro Bowl last year, who have made it so difficult for Heyward to receive similar recognition. Given the success of this group, it is easy to wonder if this is not one of the all-time great classes for the 3-4 defensive end, which is exactly how the Steelers for fortunate to land a player of Heyward’s caliber after 30 players had already gone off the board.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • ilamarca

    I guarantee back then some of us were cursing the pick, sure that Wilkerson was their guy and the Jets stole him from the Steelers just before their pick, at which point they panicked and took Heyward. We see how that worked out, and it sounds all too familiar right now.

  • Jones

    Happens every year…

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Heyward should have been playing sooner…he actually looked better then Hood in his rookie year…not sure what the Steelers were looking at but I surely saw it.

  • Ike Evans

    Tomlin has a tendancy to stick with veteran guys unless circumstances are DIRE…

  • I remember plenty of people calling him a bust because he couldn’t beat out Hood for his job going into his 3rd year.

  • TrappenWeisseGuy ;

    I remember Watt was frequently mocked to us and I was like “who the hell is JJ Watt?” Lol. Wilkerson is a helluva player as well; probably more stout in the run game than Cam.

  • jujudoublestuff

    There were many on here and other sites calling Cam a bust. I was one who wasn’t and i say that proudly.

  • B&G

    Well, I guess this is a good answer to the question that gets asked every draft: “why would we want to draft the 5th x when we could draft the first or second y?” You do it when you think the 5th x is better than the first or second y. Cam Heyward has worked out pretty dang well for being the 5th DL drafted that year.

  • LucasY59

    Impressive 1st rd group of 5 tech DEs for sure, anyone dig up the other DEs taken later in the draft that turned out to be good? (or was it 1st rd top heavy in talent, with no depth???)

  • LucasY59

    Cam still rarely lines up as the LDE, so he was stuck behind Kiesel (at RDE)

    I am fine with how it turned out (even better that they got Tuitt to pair up with him after they let ziggy move on)

  • LucasY59

    It was a little surprising to me since Kiesel was playing well and they had drafted a 1st rd DE a couple yrs before.

    But my first thought was “Son of Ironhead? hopefully he turns out to be as tough as his dad” and also could see they were taking BPA (Heyward was the more well known guy between him and Wilkerson, and even a bit more than Watt, or at least he had more time playing in a big time college program) he kinda fell to the Steelers and I was totally fine with it.

    Even then they knew Kiesel was starting to decline (or would be soon) so it was a pick for the future (which is another reason why it wasnt a big deal when it took awhile before he got much playing time)

  • LucasY59

    they’re always stealing our players/prospects!!!

  • LucasY59

    got curious and checked it out Jurrell Casey (3rd rd) was the only other 5 tech type that has had any significant playing time/success.

    So I guess it was good that they got him when they did.

    picking near the end of the rd is usually a pretty bad consolation prize for being the runner up in the Superbowl (but the Steelers did pretty well with the 1st two picks)

  • justafanlikeyou

    This is why the ” rookie don’t start under Dick Lebeau” rhetoric always bothered me. It wasn’t that Lebeau refused to start them, it was more that the defense was loaded with starting talent and it was hard to crack the lineup. Once all those guys from the SB defenses started to retire we started to see rookies getting significant playing time. Once the talent is built back up on the defense we will more then likely see another trend where it will be hard for rookies to get on the field.