He’s been immersed in the NFL atmosphere from the time he was a young boy. With a father as an NFL running back he had no choice. What could prove more difficult for Cameron Heyward is stepping out from behind his late father’s NFL shadow to make a name for himself.
Heyward’s dad wasn’t a perennial Pro Bowl performer, but he had an 11-year career and an unforgettable nickname of ‘Iron Head.’ Craig ‘Iron Head’ Heyward was a former first-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 1998, something his son aspires to be in a couple of weeks after a solid career at Ohio State as a defensive lineman.
Heyward’s father earned that well known nickname cracking helmets coming out of the backfield at Pitt, but from the time he was a teenager, the junior Heyward wanted to chart a different course when it came time to start his college career.
“It's my dad's school,” said Heyward of Pitt. “My mom went there as well. I have a bunch of family there, but I wanted to branch out a little bit and try something new."
Appearing in all 51 games of his college career, and a full time starter his last two seasons, Heyward was consistent in his play. He’s not the typical defensive end prospect that goes high in the draft due to a high sack total. Eye-popping statistics simply aren’t part of the package, and NFL scouts watch enough film to see how Heyward projects perfectly to a 3-4 defensive end role.
“I have Cameron Heyward right now as a late first round prospect, the ninth best defensive end, including defensive tackles that project as five techniques,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “I think he should come off the board late in the first or at the very latest early in the second.”
Defensive ends in the 3-4 do a lot of the dirty work. They’re not expected to roll up double-digit sack seasons. That’s the job of the outside linebackers in that scheme. Their job is to stand in and grind at the point of attack, corral ball carriers running between the tackles and keep offensive linemen off their linebackers so they can make plays. Something Heyward has already done in his time at Ohio State.
The Buckeyes flipped back and forth between three man and four man fronts, similar to what the Bills intend to employ more in 2011.
“I’ve been in a 4-3 system where I’ve played end and tackle, and then we also went to a 3-4 on third downs and I played the end,” he said. “It might have hurt my numbers, but it shows I can be more versatile. It’s only going to benefit me.”
Heyward, however, may have shown an ability to make some plays of his own as he arguably saved his best game for his last. In Ohio State’s Sugar Bowl win over Arkansas he was unstoppable.
“Cam Heyward dominated that game,” said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. “He was phenomenal against Arkansas.”
Lining up inside at defensive tackle and outside at right defensive end Heyward was a nightmare for Arkansas’ offensive line. He had four quarterback pressures, two tackles for loss, a sack, a batted pass on a 4th-and-1 play and drew a holding call.
The only bad thing to come out of the game was the elbow injury he suffered in the first half. Though he finished the game, Heyward sustained a torn UCL in his elbow that required Tommy John surgery in mid-January. Requiring three months of rehabilitation, Heyward was unable to work out at the NFL combine. At his pro day at the end of March he was still unable to bench.
“I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to work out,” he said. “It’s getting better. I’ve got full motion back in it already.”
NFL clubs naturally have concerns whenever an injury requires surgery. Though he’s considered a late first or early second round talent by most, teams investing a high pick in a player want to know that he’s going to be available come the fall. Heyward’s body of work however, should help to maintain his draft status.
“Cameron Heyward isn’t going to just be evaluated off of that one injury,” said McShay. “I think you have to evaluate him as a football player, then get the medical results back. That’s when you as a general manager or director of college scouting have to let the medical people tell you what the deal is. It’s just a matter of whether they pass the physical and how much concern there is from the doctors long term about an injury. After that teams make the evaluation.”
Heyward realizes he’s still developing as a player as he steps up to the NFL level, but at 6’4” and 297 pounds with the athleticism to post a 30-inch vertical most 3-4 clubs like what they see.
“As a pass rusher for the next level I feel like I’m a guy that likes to be physical with the pass blockers,” he said. “I know I have to refine my techniques and continue to improve, but I’m a guy that’s going to constantly hustle and give it all I’ve got.”
And as for his late father, who passed at age 39 from a brain tumor, he respects what he did in the league, but ultimately wants to make his own way.
“I can’t follow his legacy,” Heyward said. “I want to be in the NFL and he was there. I want to leave a legacy of my own. I don’t want to live in his shadow, but he was a great player. He’s always in my heart and I appreciate everything he’s done. But I want to do everything on my own. I’m not asking anybody to give me a second look because my dad was ‘Iron Head,’ but they all know I have a big head just like him. Wherever I go it’ll be a privilege and I’ll do whatever it takes.”
Throughout the month of April, we are running 2011 NFL Draft prospect stories each week. In addition, Bills fans can vote in the Bills and M&T Bank Draft Day Challenge who they think will be the Bills first pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, and have the chance to win a Bills Game Day Experience to remember. Five grand prize winners will get sideline passes, M&T Bank Club tickets that include food and beverage, a Bills Alumni meet and greet and a Bills helmet. Click here to vote.