The Steelers last night signed defensive end Cameron Heyward to a six-year contract that will keep the emerging leader with the team at least through the 2020 season.
"I love this organization!" Heyward tweeted on Thursday night.
And the organization certainly loves the 26-year-old son of the late Pitt and NFL great Craig "Ironhead" Heyward. According to Ed Bouchette of the Post-Gazette, the Steelers have agreed to pay Heyward $59.25 million over the life of the deal. The $9.9 million annual average is second on the team behind Ben Roethlisberger's $21.9 million annually and just above Lawrence Timmons' $9.6 million.
The Steelers believe in slotting their players' salaries according to merit, and Heyward, who's coming off a career-high 7.5-sack season, deserves second billing as the defense continues to rebuild the unit that paved the way for three Super Bowl appearances from the 2005-2010 seasons.
Of course, the Steelers feel they received a bit of a bargain from Heyward, who's only the fifth highest-paid 3-4 defensive end in the league behind J.J. Watt ($16.7 million average salary), Cameron Jordan ($11M), Calais Campbell ($11M) and Corey Liuget ($10.3M).
Entering his fifth season since the Steelers drafted him in the first round of the 2011 draft, Heyward has played in 64 consecutive games and made 106 tackles with 15 sacks and 12 passes defensed.
The signing takes Heyward out of the running for free agency in 2016, but the Steelers still have four starters whose contracts expire following this season: NT Steve McLendon, LG Ramon Foster, CB William Gay and LT Kelvin Beachum.
Once the 2015 season begins, the Steelers won't talk to any potential 2016 free agents until the season ends.