Steelers OTA preview: Cam Heyward's holdout, the QB competition and new offense (2024)

With Pittsburgh Steelers organized team activities set to begin Tuesday, long-time defensive captain Cameron Heyward made headlines even before the first whistle blew.

The 35-year-old defensive lineman, who is entering the final year of his contract, plans to sit out voluntary work as he negotiates an extension, ESPN initially reported. Heyward confirmed his intentions and addressed his decision on a new episode of his podcast, “Not Just Football.”

“First of all, it’s voluntary,” Heyward said. “Let’s get that straight. I’m working out, doing everything. … I have always attended these, but at this time, it’s just contract negotiations. I want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler, but we’ll see what happens.”

Heyward, who has played all 13 seasons in Pittsburgh, was selected to six consecutive Pro Bowls from 2017 to 2022. That run ended last year when he suffered a core muscle injury during training camp that required surgery. He was limited to 11 games, tallying two sacks and 33 tackles (six for loss).


In the final year of his deal, Heyward is set to count $22.4 million against the cap in 2024. Only perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt has a higher cap hit on the Steelers.

The logical move to appease both sides would be to extend Heyward for two or three years and reduce his salary-cap hit in the process. That would provide Heyward with the opportunity to finish his career as a Steeler and give the team a chance to continue to draft and develop the next generation of defensive linemen, along with more cap space in the short term.

GO DEEPERSteelers contract extension predictions: What's next for Cam Heyward, Justin Fields?

However, finding a fair number could prove more challenging than it might seem. Heyward is a proud player and person. Last year, he was publicly offended that Pro Football Focus rated him as a $3 defensive lineman in a light-hearted, roster-building exercise on social media, talking about it often on his podcast and making several posts on social media. If he felt snubbed being called one of the NFL’s top-six interior defensive linemen (and being shorted one fake internet dollar), you can bet he’ll put up more of a fight for real money.

Meanwhile, the market for interior defensive linemen has skyrocketed, with 12 at the position now making more than $20 million annually. At 35, Heyward won’t set a record with his next deal like he did with his last, but surely he’s taken note of the rising salaries at his position.

Will this situation be sorted out during OTAs, or could it linger into training camp? That’s just one of the things we’re following over the coming weeks. Here are more storylines to watch at OTAs.

What does ‘pole position’ mean, exactly?

To describe his new quarterback situation, coach Mike Tomlin introduced a brand new catchphrase when he said at the NFL’s annual league meetings Russell Wilson will begin in “pole position” over Justin Fields.


Tomlin explained that he feels it’s important to have one quarterback in the driver’s seat to rally teammates and organize informal offseason training sessions.

“Over a 12-month calendar, it’s not only good for him, it’s good for teams,” Tomlin said. “It’s good for receivers, tight ends, running backs, etc. All the things that people that are really committed to winning do this time of year.”

At the same time, Tomlin also said the Steelers are not “resistant to competition.”

“Rest assured when it’s time to compete, Justin will be given an opportunity to compete, and we’ll allow those guys to sort themselves out,” Tomlin said.

During OTAs, we’ll have our first chance to see how this dynamic plays out. Odds are, Wilson will take the overwhelming majority of the first-team reps — if not every single one.

But there are several questions: How many opportunities will Fields get, and when? Will he work with the starters at all, or will he have to wait for training camp? If he performs well, could that shape the extent of the competition when camp begins? What does Wilson have to do to maintain pole position?

What will Arthur Smith’s offense look like?

The new pieces on the Steelers’ offense are almost too numerous to count. They have a completely remade QBs group, headlined by Wilson and Fields. During the draft, they added two new pieces to the offensive line, Troy Fautanu and Zach Frazier. At receiver, rookie Roman Wilson should step right into a starting role — and there are several other newcomers at that position vying for playing time. Versatile running back/receiver Cordarrelle Patterson is new, as is tight end MyCole Pruitt.

But perhaps the most important of the newcomers is the man tasked with bringing everyone together, first-year offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.

We have a sense, based on stats and film, of the type of offense he’ll deploy, likely one that leans heavily on the ground game. It won’t be until the start of the regular season that we really see how Smith puts his stamp on the offense. But during OTAs, we’ll get the first glimpse of exactly what this unit will look like and how Smith might be tweaking his tendencies to highlight the personnel on his new team.

What I hear coming out of the Steelers is that players absolutely love Arthur Smith's offense. One told me that it is unreal.

Going to be interesting to put eyes on it. First day of OTAs start on Tuesday. The Steelers will be on the field for practices for the next 4 weeks.

— Mark Kaboly (@MarkKaboly) May 20, 2024

Which WRs will rise up the depth chart?

If you’re trying to project the Steelers’ depth chart, good luck when you get to the wide receiver position. There’s George Pickens, the clear-cut No. 1 … and then everyone else.

There is certainly no shortage of contenders. They drafted Roman Wilson, whose speed and ability to produce between the numbers would make him a stylistic complement to Pickens. The speedy Calvin Austin III showed flashes as a return man last year after missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury. The Steelers also signed a variety of veterans with a range of experience levels and skills, including Van Jefferson, Scotty Miller, Quez Watkins, Marquez Callaway, Keilahn Harris and Patterson.


Right now, that’s a lot of names for only a handful of spots. Whether Omar Khan swings a big trade or signs another free agent to add to this group, it will be a position to continue to watch through the offseason and training camp.

What’s the pecking order at cornerback?

Joey Porter Jr. showed continual growth as his rookie season unfolded. He went from a situational contributor early to the team’s most trusted corner tasked with shadowing the opponents’ top threat.

The second-year DB gives the Steelers one obvious starter on the outside. But who else gets the starting nod? Like at wide receiver, the Steelers have candidates but no obvious answer.

Donte Jackson, who was acquired in the Diontae Johnson trade, has to be near the top of the list. At the annual league meetings in Orlando, Fla., Tomlin shut down questions when asked whether Johnson requested a trade or whether the team was looking to shake up the locker room dynamic when it traded a receiver who had been in at least two reported spats with teammates. Instead, Tomlin insisted this was a football trade that worked because the Steelers wanted to upgrade at corner.

We’ll see whether that’s true.

The Carolina Panthers were reportedly ready to release Jackson if they couldn’t find a trade partner. Though Jackson has speed (he ran a 4.3 40 at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2018), he also tore his Achilles in 2022. We’ll see whether he’s back to full speed during OTAs.

Purdue product Cory Trice Jr., who missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury, is also in that conversation. Many believed the long, athletic DB would be selected in the middle rounds in 2023. However, in a deep and talented cornerback class, he slipped to the seventh round. He’ll have his first chance to show what he can do this year.

Darius Rush, who was claimed off of waivers in the middle of last season, could also fight his way up the depth chart. Anthony Averett, a 29-year-old whom the Steelers signed after a rookie minicamp tryout, is another possibility.


Rookie watch

The Steelers offered some hints about how they plan to deploy their new linemen during rookie minicamp when Fautanu, the rookie first-round pick, worked on the right side. When the rest of the linemen join the fold, we’ll start to see how the rotation is playing out.

GO DEEPERWhat will the Steelers' O-line look like? We got our first glimpse at rookie minicamp

Will Broderick Jones simply take the starting left tackle job, providing the runway for Fautanu to start at right tackle? Will Dan Moore Jr. remain at left tackle, like he did last year, until the Steelers deem the rookie ready to contribute? Will Moore compete with Fautanu at right tackle?

Similarly, will third-round inside linebacker Payton Wilson step right into the rotation with Patrick Queen and Elandon Roberts? Could his addition complicate the situation for Cole Holcomb, who is coming back from a significant knee injury?

(Photos of Cam Heyward, left, and Russell Wilson: Kirby Lee / USA Today, Rebecca Droke / Associated Press)

Steelers OTA preview: Cam Heyward's holdout, the QB competition and new offense (3)Steelers OTA preview: Cam Heyward's holdout, the QB competition and new offense (4)

Mike DeFabo is a staff writer covering the Pittsburgh Steelers for The Athletic. Prior to joining The Athletic, he spent three years at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as a Penguins beat writer, three years covering Purdue football and basketball for CNHI and one season following the Michigan State basketball team to the 2019 Final Four for the Lansing State Journal. Mike is a native of Latrobe, Pennsylvania, the proud home of Steelers training camp, and graduated from American University in Washington, D.C. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikeDeFabo

Steelers OTA preview: Cam Heyward's holdout, the QB competition and new offense (2024)


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