Trade out of the first round for more picks. That was an option. Trade up in the first round for a player they really liked. That was an option as well. Picking 31st in the first round of an NFL Draft carries with it a lot of uncertainty, and so it behooves a team to have some contingencies in mind.
But as the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft unfolded on Thursday, the Steelers found themselves in a position to go with Plan A, and they were giddy about it. So excited in fact that while the New York Jets were mulling their decision with the 30th pick, the Steelers already had the card filled out with the name of the player they wanted.
Cameron Heyward, defensive end. The Ohio State University.
"I know it's a long evening, but we feel it was very worthwhile for us to be able to stick this out and pick a kid like Cameron Heyward," said Director of Football Operations Kevin Colbert. "We feel this is one of those special players, not only from a football standpoint, but this kid has impeccable character, work habits, toughness, you name it. It's hard to find a hole with this guy. He is a special player. He is a special person."
What the Steelers did in their preparations leading up to this draft was to identify a handful of guys they believed had a chance to be available toward the end of the first round, and then they put them in an order. They weren't convinced Heyward would make it to their neighborhood, but they included him anyway. And he was on top of the list of the possibilities.
"The longer it went, the better we felt about our chances," said Colbert. "We got a guy we really coveted and we have all our picks remaining. I can't tell you how happy we are about this."
There were several reasons why the Steelers were able to feel good about their chances, and two of those happened early in the process when the Tennessee Titans used the eighth overall pick on Jake Locker and the Minnesota Vikings followed up by picking Florida State's Christian Ponder 12th overall. How the quarterbacks were going to come off the board in this draft had been the subject of much speculation, and the fact four were among the first dozen picks was one of the factors that helped push Hayward closer to the Steelers.
Other things working in the Steelers' favor were two teams ignoring character concerns – Cleveland picked Baylor defensive lineman Phil Taylor and Baltimore selected Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith – and a fortuitous trade by New Orleans to get itself a second No. 1 pick and use it to fill a need at running back, Alabama's Mark Ingram.
The Saints sent their No. 1 pick in 2012 to New England for the 28th overall selection this year, and as a 3-4 defense the Patriots were a team considered to have some interest in Heyward. Then within a half-dozen picks of their own, the Steelers got two unexpected bits of good fortune.
Those would be Seattle's decision to use the 25th overall pick on Alabama offensive tackle James Carpenter and Kansas City's decision to use the 27th pick on Pitt wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin.
The four successive picks of Carpenter, Smith, Baldwin and Ingram meant there were only the Bears and Jets ahead of the Steelers, and Chicago was in the market for an offensive lineman, who turned out to be Wisconsin tackle Gabe Carimi. As the Jets were getting Temple defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson on the phone, Colbert already had instructed the Steelers' representatives in Radio City Music Hall to put Heyward's name on the card and turn it in.
Within seconds of Commissioner Roger Goodell announcing Wilkerson's name as the Jets' pick, Heyward was putting on a Steelers hat at his mother's home in Atlanta.
"There are a lot of reasons to like Cameron Heyward," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "He's got a four-year body of work, not a one or two-year body of work. We are very familiar with this guy, very familiar schematically both in terms of what we do and what he was able to do at Ohio State. We are just extremely excited about him. He's an impeccable young man, a really good football player. It's going to be awesome to put him in the mix with some other big-body young people we've been able to add in recent years – Ziggy Hood, Maurkice Pouncey and now Cameron Heyward. I really feel good about adding to our lines of scrimmage with solid young people early in the draft."