Defensive end Cameron Heyward, the Steelers’ first-round draft choice in 2011, finally earned a starting job last season and on Tuesday he was given a raise.
He will have to wait until 2015 to get it, though.
The Steelers exercised the fifth-year option on Heyward’s rookie contract that will boost his pay in 2015 to $6,969,000, unless he signs a contract extension before that.
Heyward played for a salary of almost $1 million last season and is scheduled to earn a salary of almost $1.3 million this season and count about $2.1 million against the salary cap.
Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement with the players union, all drafted rookies must now sign four-year contracts. The exception comes in the first round, where all rookies also have an option tacked onto their deals.
The options are up to the team but must be exercised by May 3 of a player’s fourth year. Once exercised, that money is guaranteed only for injury. In other words, if the Steelers release Heyward for non-injury reasons before the 2015 regular season, he would not receive the nearly $7 million salary. If he is on the roster for the first regular-season game of 2015, the full amount is guaranteed.
That 2015 salary for Heyward, as determined by the CBA, is the average of the third through 25th salaries in 2013 of all defensive ends in the league.
Heyward, who turns 25 May 6, was the 31st player drafted in 2011. Playing behind Brett Keisel and another first-round pick in Ziggy Hood at defensive end, the Ohio State product did not start a game his first two seasons but played in all 32.
He made his first career start in the third game last season, replacing Hood at left end against the Chicago Bears. He went on to start 12 more games, finishing second on the team and first among defensive linemen with five sacks. He also led the defense with 31 quarterback pressures.
Heyward’s breakout performance in 2013 might be one reason the Steelers allowed Hood to sign as a free agent with Jacksonville without making him an offer.
NOTE — One college draft prospect paid a visit Tuesday to the Steelers: cornerback Ross Cockrell of Duke.
Ed Bouchette: email@example.com and Twitter @EdBouchette.