June 15, 2024

Thirteen years ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers last used a first-round pick on a defensive lineman to fit into their 3-4 scheme.

Cameron Heyward is still chugging along as he approaches 35 years old, but he is coming off a core muscle injury that cost him six games early last season and is entering the final year of his contract – and possibly career.

In recent years, the Steelers have taken baby steps toward drafting Heyward’s successor – just not with their first pick.

In 2021, the Steelers used their third-round pick, No. 84 overall, on DeMarvin Leal, who is more of an edge rusher than prototypical tackle. Last year, the Steelers used their second pick of the second round, No. 49, to acquire Keeanu Benton, who has the frame and disposition to play inside.

As well as Benton played as a rookie – he had one sack and 36 tackles while playing in all 17 games – the Steelers might be inclined to end their streak of not using their top pick to address the defensive line.

Heyward had his groin muscle repaired in September, then had another procedure done in February.

“The reality is he’s going to be 35, so we have to be careful with how we manage his reps,” general manager Omar Khan said earlier this week at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis. “We’re going to be smart about it. … He doesn’t need to learn the defense.”

Khan is committed to having Heyward return for another season despite a $22.4 million salary cap hit that the organization will try to reduce via a restructured deal or contract extension with voidable years. Other pieces of the defensive line, however, also could be in flux.

Larry Ogunjobi turns 30 in June and is a year removed from cashing in with a three-year, $28.75 contract. FoOgunjobir that money, the Steelers got three sacks, eight quarterback hits and 43 tackles. Two years earlier, before he sustained a foot injury while playing for Cincinnati, Ogunjobi had seven sacks.

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