Steelers pick up defensive end Heyward's option for 2015 season
One breakthrough season led to one big salary for Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward.
Heyward didn't become a starter until last season, but the Steelers decided Tuesday to pick up a fifth-year contract option that will pay him $6.969 million in 2015.
The salary is guaranteed and would be the largest paid to a Steelers defensive lineman in a single season. Casey Hampton signed a $21.3 million, three-year contract in 2010, but he later re-negotiated it and never made more than $4 million in base salary. Aaron Smith's maximum single-season salary was $5 million. Brett Keisel made $3.9 million last season.
Heyward is making $1,289,322 this season, the last in a four-year rookie contract worth $6,705,048. His salary cap hit is $2.13 million.
The Steelers had until May 3 to decide whether to pick up Heyward's fifth-year option, and did so on the first day of offseason workouts Tuesday.
A provision of the 2011 NFL labor agreement allows teams to exercise a fifth-year option on first-round draft picks starting that year, when Heyward was the No. 31 overall pick. For players selected from 11th to 32nd in the first round, the option year salary is based on the average of the top 25 players at the same position but with the top three salaries eliminated.
If the Steelers didn't pick up Heyward's option, they risked losing him in free agency after the 2014 season unless they worked out a multi-year contract.
Heyward, 24, mostly played as a backup to Keisel at right defensive end during his first two seasons, but he started 13 games last season, making 63 tackles and recording five sacks and 31 quarterback pressures.
Playing 845 of a possible 1,093 snaps, Heyward was the second highest-rated player on the Steelers defense to Troy Polamalu, according to Pro Football Focus.