The Ideal D-End For The Steelers?

Cameron Heyward appears to be the perfect defensive end for not only the Pittsburgh Steelers but any of the new 3-4 defenses that've cropped up around the league. But where's the love?

This column about Cameron Heyward was started at the combine, but aborted. It'd be more timely, I figured, as the winnowing process found its way to the group of players expected to be chosen at or around pick No. 31, where the Pittsburgh Steelers will make their next offseason maneuver.

But Heyward might not be in that group. That's the opinion of Pro Football Weekly's Nolan Nawrocki, whose top 50 list contributed to yesterday's column.

It's not that I question Heyward's place on Nawrocki's list. It's that he's absent from the list entirely. Why?

Nawrocki will explain when the PFW draft book comes out next month, but the OSU beat reporter at our sister site, Marcus Hartman, took a shot at explaining the lack of respect overall for a player who seemed like such an elite prospect in 2009.

"Heyward is really powerful and can get under a lineman and take him where he wants him to go," Hartman wrote in an e-mail. "But he is not much of a pass rusher because he just has average speed and quickness."

It became clear in 2010 that Heyward lacks the quick-twitch muscle fiber of a first-round 4-3 end. But he's more than athletic enough to play end in a 3-4, and at 6-5, 294 with a frame to carry an additional 15 pounds, he's the right size.

"I think he'll be a great 3-4 end for a long time," wrote Hartman, "one who is more of a playmaker than the average 3-4 guy, but not enough of one to play 4-3 end. So late first, early second makes a lot of sense to me, and he would be a great value pick there."

That's what I was thinking. And I was also thinking that this year's impressive group of defensive ends is so vast that a solid 3-4 prospect such as Heyward has been forced to the bottom of the round. But off the top-50 grid, as one of the better talent evaluators of the genre expects? Hey, weren't Adam Carricker and Tyson Jackson similar athletes? And didn't they go early, as expected?

What makes Heyward a significantly worse prospect when the competition, experience, stats, weights and measurements of the three players are so similar?

Hartman offered that it's possible teams are concerned about the elbow surgery that cancelled Heyward's combine workout and postponed his Pro Day workout until March 30. But a lineman with four seasons on tape shouldn't have to worry about a missed workout.

So I wondered whether there's a character risk. It wouldn't surprise me after I watched Heyward go through a range of emotions at his combine press conference. He ran both hot and cold, the latter when I asked him -- after he'd made references to "THE Ohio State" – why he hadn't attended THE Pitt? He came back with an attitude-laced "Excuse me?"

I asked him again and the son of Ironhead said, "Because they're not known as THE Pitt."

OK, so he didn't get the rather lame joke. But is this guy some kind of a jerk?

"Definitely not," said Hartman. "It has nothing to do with character. That is impeccable. He does everything right on and off the field and the coaches loved him. Good family life, too."

Perhaps the problem lies in the tape. I had one left, a good one, too: Ohio State at Iowa.

In that game, Heyward played mostly tackle in a 4-3 and he showed not only his bull rush, but athleticism and a bit of a burst in splitting a double-team to pressure a third-down incompletion, in shooting a gap to blow up a sweep before it got started, and in quick-hopping a cut block to leap and bat a pass back at the quarterback, who caught it and was tackled by Heyward.

Those were the type of plays that marked his college career. But in watching closely, Heyward showed some of the same problems that allowed Wisconsin to rumble its way for much of their 184 yards rushing.

I had written that off due to highly motivated performances at home by Badgers linemen Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt. But Justin Vandervelde of Iowa was reviving those memories, memories that Heyward can't hold up in the run game, that he plays too high and too often ends up on his rear end with those long legs sticking straight up in the air.

It certainly wasn't a tape that brought back memories of Carricker or Jackson, who at the least could hold the point the way John Mitchell, Dick LeBeau and Mike Tomlin will demand.

It instead made me think of Heyward as being at least two years from seeing any serviceable duty with the Steelers, and even then there's a risk he might become nothing more than a rotational player.

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