The NFL's Collective Bargaining Agreement contains a provision to allow teams to exercise a fifth-year option on players picked in the first round starting with the 2011 draft, and the Steelers have elected to do just that with Cam Heyward.
As part of the rookie wage scale that is a part of the current CBA, all draft picks are required to sign four-year contracts, and for No. 1 picks, a fifth-year option can be applied by the team.
The Steelers had until May 3 to exercise this option with Heyward, but they decided to announce the move today, which also happens to be when Phase 1 of the team's offseason program begins.
For players selected in the first 10 picks of the first round, their fifth-year salary is to equal the transition tender for the player's position in the fourth year of his contract. As examples, the transition tender for a quarterback in 2014 was $14.666 million, $10.633 million for a defensive end, $9.754 million for a linebacker, and $10.081 million for a cornerback, etc.
For players selected from 11th to 32nd in the first round – Heyward was the 31st overall pick in 2011 – the salary for the option year is determined from the average of the top 25 highest-paid players at the same position, with the top three salaries excluded. Based on 2014 salaries for example, this average for defensive ends would be in the neighborhood of $7.5 million, but the numbers contributing to that average will change for 2015.
During his first two seasons with the Steelers, Heyward didn't start a game while primarily serving as a backup to Brett Keisel at right defensive end. Heyward's statistics in those two seasons combined included 31 tackles, 2.5 sacks, two passes defensed, and one forced fumble. But he broke through in 2013 with 13 starts, and his production increased significantly. Heyward led the team's defensive linemen in virtually every significant statistical category, with 63 tackles, five sacks, five passes defensed, and 31 pressures.
The Steelers' decision to exercise the fifth-year option in Heyward's contract means he now is bound to the team through the 2015 season.