Can Keeanu Benton seize the day with Cam Heyward absent?

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PITTSBURGH -- For the first time in more than a decade, there's not a yellow No. 97 jersey on the practice fields outside the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex for the Pittsburgh Steelers' voluntary organized team activities.

Even stranger, there's not a booming voice joking with the defensive line or heckling young offensive linemen and coaches-turned-referees officiating team periods.

Six-time Pro Bowl defensive lineman Cameron Heyward isn't at OTAs as he seeks a new deal to continue playing for the team that drafted him with the 31st overall pick in 2011.

"I have always attended these, but at this time it's just contract negotiations," Heyward said on a May 16 episode of his podcast, "Not Just Football." "And I want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler, but we'll see what happens. I'm training hard. [There's] nothing I'm not doing on and off the field. I'm doing everything possible, and we'll get there when we get there."

Attendance isn't required until mandatory minicamp opens June 11, but the players who reported to the first workouts last week were acutely aware the 2023 Walter Payton Man of the Year wasn't there.

"He's just a funny guy to be around, and at the same time, he's a great leader," third-year defensive end Isaiahh Loudermilk said. "Kind of missing both parts of it, that kind of joking around that he has with the coaches, with us. It's always good to have him around for the leadership side of it too."

Not having Heyward around to crack those jokes, though, makes things a little bit easier on Mike Tomlin, the coach said with a grin last week.

"I'm not overly concerned, to be quite honest with you," Tomlin said. "Cam's a guy with over 10,000 plus career snaps. It's probably an easier day for me with him not being here. I thin the lines out and get to know some people that I know less than him."

And it's good timing, too, because while Heyward has expressed a desire to play several more years, the reality is he's 35 years old carrying a $22 million cap hit in the final year of his contract. Heyward was one of only five defensive linemen age 34 or older to play a game in 2023, according to ESPN Stats & Info. This season, seven defensive linemen are slated to make at least $20 million in 2024. Heyward is the oldest of that group by nearly three years.

The Steelers briefly experienced life without Heyward last season after a freak tackle exacerbated a nagging groin injury, ripping the muscle off the bone and requiring surgery. Heyward made it back after a six-game absence, but he battled through pain and injuries that required a second surgery after the season.

"In my mind, I want to play more than just one more season," Heyward said in January. "I just got to get healthy first. We talk about coming back from injury. I was told at the time it was a 12-week process, and we came back in six weeks. I fought the doctors every week. ... But the flip side of that is I put my body through a lot of pain this year. ... I can't be doing that year in and year out."

Among those lesser-known players Tomlin is prioritizing in Heyward's absence are Loudermilk and second-year defensive lineman Keeanu Benton.

Loudermilk, selected in the fifth round of the 2021 draft, has played 585 snaps in three seasons, including 181 in 16 games last season. Benton, meanwhile, had a rookie season that was a baptism by fire as he racked up 36 total tackles, one sack and two forced fumbles in 484 snaps with an increased role after Heyward's injury. And with a rare combination of innate talent and leadership, Benton is perhaps best positioned to pick up Heyward's mantle in the short (and long) term. It's something his veteran teammates are trying to guide him toward.

"It's about the reps, but it's also about helping him find his identity, letting him know that he's the new leader of this thing," said defensive tackle Montravius Adams, describing how Heyward's absence can benefit Benton. "I just want to help groom him into that, and just take the next step.

"... I've kind of seen it a little bit, and I feel like he can fit here and be here for a long time, and I just think the next step will be just -- it's good to be a player that can go out there on the field, but sometimes you need somebody to talk to. There's just areas I would like for him to grow at, and just keep getting better doing what he's doing."

Benton savors the leadership role, one he has assumed since high school football. An affable and approachable 22-year-old, Benton is embracing the opportunity to help his teammates, including 2024 sixth-round pick Logan Lee.

"I'm just being myself," Benton said. "Guys gravitate towards me because of who I am. [They] ask me questions. I don't mind answering them. I answer 'em honestly. It's nice to have a different rookie [Lee] in the class. That's really the guy who asks the most questions to me. And then just being able to be a different voice in the locker room, breaking down huddles and stuff like that. [Heyward's absence] Just gives me more opportunities to be heard and pick up my role."

OTAs are Benton's first major opportunity to lead, but he's not doing it alone. Though he's not there physically, Heyward is still helping his team. He's been communicating with his coaches and teammates, touching base with Tomlin twice on the day before the team reported to OTAs on May 21.

"He's still a student of the game, and at the same time he's a teacher too," Loudermilk said. "He was definitely sitting somewhere watching the film. He saw something, reached out to me to help me through. It. Just gave me some advice on things, too. Even though he's not here physically, we know he's still taking those mental reps and watching our practices. ... All of us know if we need anything from him, we can reach out to him, and he'll help us."