Steelers' Cameron Heyward, JuJu Smith-Schuster ready to play despite contract uncertainty

With just weeks to go until the regular season, time is running out for the Pittsburgh Steelers to secure some of their core players for the future.

The Steelers don't typically negotiate contracts during the regular season, and with the offseason nearing completion, there hasn't been much -- if any -- progress with signature players such as defensive captain Cameron Heyward, who will be a free agent after this season, and wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who is playing on the final year of his rookie deal. Both spoke about their contract situations on videoconference calls before the Steelers' first padded practice Monday.

"Y'all know where I stand," said Heyward, the 31-year-old All-Pro defensive end. "I want to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. I want to lead this team to a Super Bowl. But, we'll see where we are. I love my team, I love my teammates. I love this city, the coaches. And I love being a Pittsburgh Steeler.

"But you've got to take two to tango. I want to be here and I just have to see what happens. There's a couple more weeks before the season, and all I can focus on is what I can control and we'll leave it at that."

Like Heyward, Smith-Schuster, 23, said that not having a contract wouldn't shift his focus.

"At the end of the day, I'm just here to play ball," said Smith-Schuster, who is coming off a disappointing season of 42 catches for 552 yards and three touchdowns. "I'm not going to be the kind of guy that sits out and waits, regardless if there's a contract or not."

Already tight on cap space, the Steelers have a handful of difficult contract decisions to make in the upcoming year -- especially if the cap drops to account for lost revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Not only do Heyward's and Smith-Schuster's contracts run out, but running back James Conner will also come to the end of his rookie deal, and two offensive line starters, Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler, are set to become free agents. Plus, Bud Dupree is playing on a one-year franchise tag, and the Steelers will need to either tag him again or sign him to a long-term deal to keep him around.

Smith-Schuster, though, isn't concerned about his contract status entering his fourth season in the league.

"As of right now, I'm not worried about that. It's more so just playing ball. With everything going on right now, you never know what can happen. For me, I'd love to be a Steeler. But at the end of the day, I'm here to play ball and win games for the team and the organization," he said.

At the end of July, Heyward's agent Michael Perrett of Element Sports Group told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler that the two sides hadn't had any substantive talks.

"I thought we'd be further along in the process. In a normal year, we might be," Perrett said. "The current situation [with the pandemic] has led to a lot of uncertainty, but NFL business is still moving forward. Cam would love to retire a Steeler, but at this point he just doesn't know how all of this is going to play out."

Beyond being a Pro Bowl defensive end, Heyward is a leader on the field and in the locker room. A defensive captain entering his 10th season with the franchise, Heyward is also the team's NFLPA player representative.

"I got to see him growing up a little bit, knew who he was, knew what kind of football character he has," defensive line coach Karl Dunbar said. "He's shown that football character the whole time. ... I think that's the intangibles you get when a guy's a good player and he' been in this league for a while. He understands how to be a pro, how not to worry about his job, how to help younger guys get better to help the team. I think that's basically what Cam has shown for this team."

On Monday, a visibly frustrated Heyward said the two sides previously set dates to discuss the contract but nothing got resolved.

"I know dealing with the coronavirus definitely halted a lot of things, and early on we set dates to talk and we went past those dates," Heyward said.

"It's pretty uncertain right now," he said. "I don't know what to think. At the same time, I see a lot of my teammates in the past have done it, but I know NFL business is moving forward. You see guys getting their contracts resolved. I want to have faith, but I'm going to be ready to play either way."