The Heyward family is synonymous with football greatness.
The patriarch, the late Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, was an All-American fullback at the University of Pittsburgh and eventually a Pro Bowler who played 11 seasons in the NFL. His second son, Cameron Heyward, became a first round pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011 out of Ohio State. During his 11 seasons, Cameron has blossomed into an All-Pro defensive lineman and arguably the team's overall leader. Then you have the youngest son, Connor Heyward, a player that defined himself through his ability to play practically any position on the football field.
During his time at Peachtree Ridge High School, Heyward played five different positions: quarterback, receiver, running back, safety, and punter. As a three-year starter, Conner was one of the top overall players in the state of Georgia. With 16 offers under his belt, he committed to Michigan State, where his versatility made him one of the most important players on the Spartans' roster.
In his freshman year, Heyward played both tight end and running back, while returning kicks. By the end of this season, he had accumulated 465 all-purpose yards, which included 436 kick return yards. In his sophomore year, he took his versatility to a whole new level. In addition to posting 529 rushing yards, he added 249 receiving yards and 287 kick return yards. For his efforts that season, he was a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award, given to the nation’s most versatile player. He would also earn Michigan State's Downtown Coaches Club Award for most outstanding offensive player.
After redshirting for the 2019 season, he came back for his redshirt junior year to lead his team in carries (65), while adding 18 catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns. He would finish the season with 271 scrimmage yards. In his final year with Michigan State, he would earn honorable mention All-Big Ten, and receive an invitation to the Reese's Senior Bowl. He finished with a career-high 35 receptions for 326 yards.
In today's NFL, players with Heyward's assorted skill set are coveted. On film, we found a player capable of producing at almost every offensive position on the field. There is no question that he can be placed in different spots and contribute at a high level. If placed in the right position, Heyward has the potential to become one of the biggest revelations on the Pittsburgh Steelers' roster.
Gifted Hands As A Receiver
What does not get acknowledged enough about Heyward is his ability to catch the ball. During his time with Michigan State, he created an impressive highlight reel of catches with a high degree of difficulty. Whether he is in open space or being covered by an opposing defender, his ability to track the ball and make catches has resulted in minimal dropped balls during his collegiate career. In essence, his hands may be his strongest attribute as a football player.
In this short example against Michigan, Heyward is seen positioned as the 'z' receiver, as he is three yards off the line of scrimmage. When the ball is snapped, he runs a quick slant toward the first down marker. While being shadowed, he makes a spectacular one-handed grab to get the first down. This clip speaks for itself.
Underrated Speed and Vision As A Running Back
There are instances in which a rookie's combine time may not be a fair reflection of their speed on the football field. In Heyward's case, he ran a 4.72 in the 40' at this year's Combine. On tape, however, his initial burst and ability to accelerate in the open field suggest he is much faster than the 40' time he posted at this year's NFL Combine.
In this highlight against the University of Maryland, Heyward is seen positioned as a running back. The key to this play begins with the superb blocking up front by the Spartans' offensive line. Notice in this play how the right 'A' gap is open, but a Terrapins linebacker is waiting. Instead, he takes a detour into the left 'A' cap and finds an acceleration through the seam once it opens up. The rest of this play is an example of his breakaway speed, which is very impressive to watch.
Special Teams Abilities
In addition to his capabilities as a receiver and running back, Conner was a productive kick returner, as he accumulated 723 career kick return yards during his tenure with the Spartans. From viewing him on film, his ability to view and exploit vulnerabilities against an opposing unit made him an effective kick returner.
In this example against the Minnesota Gophers, Conner takes this kick return from near the end zone and starts following his blocks. Once he sees an opening on the outside, he leaves his blockers and accelerates outside. Conner uses his speed to gain substantial yards down the sideline until he is stopped by one of the Gopher defenders.
One can debate which position is best suited for Heyward to play. Yet, it would be beneficial for the Steelers not to pigeonhole him in one position and allow him to contribute in different areas. Conner is one of the most unique players the team has drafted in recent memory. He is the type of player that can help expand the offense if given the freedom to do so.