When Darrius Heyward-Bey took it upon himself to handle coaching duties for a half-dozen wide receivers at the Steelers rookie minicamp last month, it happened about halfway through the first day of workouts.
“And when I stepped in and started giving advice, Coach T (Mike Tomlin) said, ‘I was waiting for you to say something!’ ” Heyward-Bey recalled.
A few months removed from his 30th birthday and entering his ninth NFL season, Heyward-Bey is the wily veteran of the Steelers wide receivers corps.
A former No. 7 overall draft pick, Heyward-Bey has evolved into a sage leader respected by teammates and coaches.
“DHB is a great leader,” second-year receiver Demarcus Ayers said. “He’s a big brother to all of us. What I like about him most is he’s just so genuine.
“He’s a guy I always lean on. Whenever I need help or need a big question answered, I am definitely going to DHB.”
Tomlin went to DHB when veteran wide receivers coach Richard Mann was unavailable for rookie minicamp because of offseason knee surgery. Among Steelers receivers, Heyward-Bey has been in the NFL the longest and is the oldest.
“(Rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster) was (12) when I got drafted, so that makes me feel a little old,” Heyward-Bey said. “But to be honest with you, when I came here, the leadership role was kind of given to me. At the time I was 26, and it was like, ‘You’re the older guy here. Put these guys under your wing and show them the way.’
“And at first I didn’t know how to do that because nobody had ever shown me that before. But I kind of just learned day by day, week by week. And by the time Year 1 here was done, that just became my makeup. That became who I was.”
Some might view Heyward-Bey was a bust — a No. 7 overall pick by the Oakland Raiders who had just nine catches as a rookie and has averaged 24.9 catches per season in eight years.
But in Pittsburgh, he’s a favorite of the coaching staff and his peers because of his gregarious, selfless attitude and work ethic and because of how he’s embraced his roles on special teams. Not all former top-10 picks would do that.
On offense, the speedy Heyward-Bey has served as the Steelers’ fourth or fifth receiver for most of the three seasons he spent with the team. He has 30 catches and four touchdowns over 42 games.
But with Martavis Bryant back from suspension, Sammie Coates recovered from broken fingers and Smith-Schuster a high-profile addition, Heyward-Bey isn’t a lock for a roster spot.
The Steelers typically keep five wideouts, though six is possible if one or more excels on special teams. Bryant and Smith-Schuster join perennial All-Pro Antonio Brown as roster locks, and it would be surprising if Coates or slot starter Eli Rogers did not make it. Also, Ayers showed promise in limited action as a rookie. Cobi Hamilton showed playmaking prowess in his first season with the Steelers, and Justin Hunter was signed as a free agent in March.
In all, there are 11 receivers on the Steelers training camp roster. If all perform to their potential, who loses out?
“I’m just trying to keep my seat,” Heyward-Bey said, before flashing a grin. “It’s comfortable, too.”
No matter how much Heyward-Bey is a perfect fit to transition into coaching, he has no intentions of doing it soon. He’s still a player — albeit a player who believes part of his role is to mentor.
“I have played the game for a long time,” Heyward-Bey said. “I have been the guy who started, I’ve been the guy who played special teams, I have been the guy who was standing on the sidelines watching. So I just try to give my knowledge, pass it on and hope for the best for those young guys.”