PFF Monson: Cameron Heyward’s contract extension “hard to sell” after injury and declining performance in 2023

The Pittsburgh Steelers face a difficult decision when it comes to current contract negotiations with Cameron Heyward. He has been a leader of the team and the heart and soul of the defense for the past nine seasons, and his play has reached the level of a future Hall of Famer for several years.

But at the end of the day, the NFL is a business, and making decisions based on past performance would be bad business. Whenever a player extends his contract, it is because the team believes he can continue to play at a high level and produce for the franchise. At 35 years old and with a season of injuries that have affected his performance, how confident are the Steelers that Cameron Heyward will bounce back not only in 2024, but also for the three years he plans to play before retiring?

“I think it's hard to give him another contract with that much salary right now. He obviously earned it through his NFL career, through his loyalty and through what he's done for the organization. You could justify it that way,” said Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus at the Continue to play! Podcast. “Last year was the first year that things weren't going so well. He was ailing and at 35, those are warning signs.”

He goes on to talk about Bill Belichick's statement that he would rather part ways with a player a year early than a year late. That largely worked in Belichick's favor, but they didn't give in to Tom Brady's contract demands in 2019 and he ended up winning a Super Bowl in his first year away from the team with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

These situations obviously cannot be compared one-to-one, but they show that Belichick's methodology is not flawless.

“When you get a player who's getting on in years, you ask yourself, when is he going to be banged up? When is his performance going to drop off,” Monson said. “And whether it was just a bad year or not, you saw both of those things with Heyward last season. So I think it's a really tough call to re-sign him.”

This is where it gets tricky. He returned to play but was never 100 percent at any point in the 2023 season. He couldn't walk and even admitted himself that he was practically playing on one leg. So do you think the injury was just an unfortunate isolated incident that caused the drop in performance? You might as well look at his age and think it will be the same again in the future.

Cameron Heyward had only missed two games since 2017 before his injury last season. And in 2022, he had double-digit sack numbers and made the Pro Bowl. Whether he can play at that level again is the (million) dollar question. He currently has the team's second-highest salary cap number. If they can find a way to extend him and lower the salary to better match his age and the potential risks it poses to the franchise, then that's great. But he's said multiple times that he's not looking to take a pay cut and he still believes he's a top-5 player at the position.

Personally, I don't see much incentive for the Steelers to extend Heyward's contract through next offseason. It seems unlikely he'll last one season, and I see no reason why he would turn down a deal next offseason if he ends up getting it.