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The Right Fit

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A quick glance at the Steelers' wide receiver depth chart heading into this season might raise a few concerns.

Yes, Martavis Bryant is indeed out for the entire season due to missing multiple drug tests.  Markus Wheaton is out too, at least for the opening game. Antonio Brown, one of the best receivers in the league, is back and at full strength.  And younger guys like Sammie Coates and Eli Rogers are looking to step up and make an impact.

But there is one receiver most fans probably aren’t even thinking about. 

Darrius Heyward-Bey, the former first-round pick by the Oakland Raiders, is back once again this year, his third season with the Steelers.  Known mostly now as a special teams contributor and veteran leader, the 6’2”, 219-pound Heyward-Bey will have a chance this season to help fill Bryant’s shoes.

The now 29-year-old wideout’s career to this point has been full of twists and turns.  Although he was highly coveted out of the University of Maryland, he was not considered the best receiving prospect in the 2009 NFL Draft class.  But the late Al Davis, Oakland’s eccentric owner, was dazzled by Heyward-Bey’s speed at the NFL Scouting Combine, where Heyward-Bey ran a 4.30 40-yard dash.

Davis and the Raiders ended up taking Heyward-Bey seventh overall, ahead of future stars Jeremy Maclin and Michael Crabtree. Four years later, in 2013, the Raiders released him after a disappointing stint. 

Many labeled him a bust, and thought his NFL career would be finished early.

But Dominic Damico, coach at McDonogh School in Maryland, where Heyward-Bey played his high school football, knew he could do more.

“I think at that time, Oakland was in such turmoil,” Damico said.  “I think if you look back, there were a lot of players that didn’t work out in Oakland.  That was a tough place to make things happen when they took him in the first round.”

After being released by Oakland in March 2013, Heyward-Bey signed a one-year, $3 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts.  A year later, after a season in which he caught 29 passes for 309 yards and one touchdown, he was looking for work once again.

That’s where the Steelers came in.  They decided to give Heyward-Bey a one-year deal in the spring of 2014 to prove himself.  But Pittsburgh saw an upside to Heyward-Bey that other teams looked over, according to Damico.

“I think [Steelers coach] Mike Tomlin has an affinity to him,” Damico said.  “I think he likes him as a person.  If Tomlin didn’t like Darrius as a person and Darrius’ character and ability to help with the young players, he would’ve been gone.”

On the surface, it may have looked like Heyward-Bey had a miserable first year with Pittsburgh.  He caught three passes for 33 yards and zero touchdowns all year while playing in every regular season game.  But Heyward-Bey’s special teams work did not go unnoticed among fellow Steelers players, coaches and fans.

In fact, the Steelers liked him enough to re-sign him for 2015.  Damico said he could understand why an organization like the Steelers would want to keep a guy like Heyward-Bey around for more than one year.

“Darrius’ personality, even way back in high school, was more mature than his age,” Damico said.  “He has those leadership qualities.  Darrius loves football.  He loves competing.  He loves being a part of something.”

Heyward-Bey’s second season brought heavier expectations with it, as the release of Lance Moore in March of 2015 and the four-game suspension of Bryant that August forced Heyward-Bey to move up the depth chart as the Steelers’ third receiver, behind Brown and Wheaton.  A heavier burden on his back did not slow him down, however.

Heyward-Bey served as a capable replacement to Bryant in the first four games, catching 15 balls for 185 yards and two touchdowns during the first quarter of the year. 

All in all, he finished 2015 with 21 catches for 314 yards and his two scores, but once again was a special teams ace, using his natural speed to his advantage.

On March 8, 2016, the day Heyward-Bey had probably been waiting for finally came, as he signed a three-year, $3.8 million contract with the team that gave him a second chance.  No longer would the receiver from Maryland have to prove himself just to get another contract.

Landry Jones, the Steelers’ backup quarterback who has practiced and played a lot with Heyward-Bey over the past few seasons, spoke highly of the receiver’s role heading into 2016.

“He keep[s] everybody poised and under control,” Jones said.  “He’s becoming a big-time leader out there with the first team offense.”

Heyward-Bey himself said that there’s always room for improvement.

“Coach Tomlin always tells me to stay focused,” he said.  “I have to improve on being more consistent on the field.  Every time the ball comes I should be Steelers Darrius Heyward-Beythinking catch and making a play.”

It was not have been easy for Heyward-Bey as a young player.  Expected to be a savior in Oakland, he was instead labeled a bust by most.  Although he never reached the level of stardom that some thought he might, he is still thriving on the football field, just in a different way.

“He’s not playing for paychecks,” Damico said.  “He loves being in a locker room.  He loves football.  He loves being a part of a team.”

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