While it seems unlikely he will get it, Cameron Heyward should absolutely be in the running for All-Pro consideration. Before getting mad about the chances of him receiving a national honor, let me explain. The national media is just catching up but has been behind when it comes to the evolution of the NFL.
Last year was the first year that the NFL All-Pro positions were broken into edge rushers and interior defenders rather than defensive end and defensive tackle. This used to always hurt a guy like Heyward. Heyward is listed as a defensive end. In the 3-4 base scheme that the Steelers run, that is what he is. However, the Steelers run a variety of formations that feature a majority of snaps in the nickel. The majority of Heyward’s snaps would come in the interior. He is much more similar to a defensive tackle in a 4-3 defensive scheme than a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme, despite the position being the called the same.
In a 4-3, the defensive tackles are pushing pockets and running backs to the outside for the defensive ends on the outside. In the 3-4, the defensive ends do this for the outside linebackers. So while defensive tackles were being praised for their skill set, Heyward was being punished for not having sack numbers that stack up to elite pass rushers.
Whether it was adjusting to rule, lack of stats, or the confusion of where to put certain defensive ends on the ballot, only Calais Campbell made the All-Pro as a 3-4 defensive end, and he is now playing on the edge in Jacksonville and spent time on the edge in Arizona as well.
It will be tough for Heyward to sway the voters because he is a defensive end, but when compared to interior defensive lineman, he is right there with the best. With the new voting and addition of interior defender to the ballot, two interior players make first team All-Pro, and three make the second team. When looking at the best candidates, Fletcher Cox, David Irving, Linval Joseph, Akiem Hicks, Mike Daniels, Kawann Short, Gerald McCoy, Aaron Donald, Geno Atkins, and Heyward would represent the top ten candidates based on their seasons so far.
Don’t have the stats
Three of those ten have the tape but not the stats. Fletcher Cox has the name recognition but has missed two games and has 11 tackles on the season. For comparison, Heyward has ten tackles that went for a loss of yards on the season. Mike Daniels has twice as many tackles, 22, but has just 10.5 combined tackles for loss and sacks. His lack of sacks, 2.5, is going to hurt him. Linval Joseph has the tackles, but is a nose tackle, and does not get the sacks or the tackles for loss to get into award recognition. Even worse than Heyward and his defensive end conundrum is the inability for a nose tackle to get respect.
From here, Heyward just needs to beat out two of these names. Sacks is what the majority of voters are going to base their decision off of. Of the interior defenders, Heyward and Akiem Hicks currently lead the group with seven. Tackles for loss are likely going to be the next category.
In terms of tackles for loss combined with sacks, Aaron Donald leads the group with 20 and an impressive 15 tackles for loss. Behind him is Geno Atkins with 19, Akiem Hicks with 18, and then Heyward with 17. The other three are not far behind with Short having 16 combined, Irving with 14, and McCoy with 13. What is impressive and worth noting about Irving is that he has done this in just five games.
So while it is close, and worth discussing, as Irving or McCoy could change things with a big second half, currently Heyward almost certainly has to get on the first or second-team All-Pro. Given the name value, and positions of Atkins and Donald, Heyward will likely get a second-team nod, but there is no doubt that right now he is deserving of the honor.