The Steelers have long reaped the rewards for taking DEs Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel with lower-round picks years ago, and they will not be easy to replace whenever they leave the lineup.
This likely helps to explain why the Steelers addressed the position in Round One for the second time in three seasons on Thursday, selecting Ohio State's Cameron Heyward with the No. 31 overall pick.
The 6-4 5/8, 294-pound Heyward, the son of the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, has the strength necessary to play end in Pittsburgh's 3-4 scheme, and his work ethic and character were cited as strengths in PFW's 2011 Draft Preview. But Heyward, personnel analyst Nolan Nawrocki wrote in the 2011 Draft Preview, "could be relegated to a two-down role given his inefficency rushing the passer and has athletic and instinct deficiencies for which all the intensity, heart and hustle in the world can't fully compensate."
However, even if Heyward doesn't improve as a pass rusher, he could be an asset as a run stuffer. In Pittsburgh's scheme, the outside linebackers are the primary rushers; any push the ends can provide is a plus.
At first glance, it appears Heyward's strengths are in line with what the Steelers look for in their ends, and his weaknesses aren't as problematic as they would be in other schemes. Also, Heyward does not figure to start in his first NFL season, with Keisel, Smith and third-year pro Ziggy Hood — the Steelers' first-round pick in '09 — all likely to be ahead of Heyward in the pecking order.
In short, Heyward enters a defense that should suit him, and the Steelers look to have the luxury to work him in slowly. Sounds like a good formula.