The Pittsburgh Steelers are reportedly "optimistic" about signing T.J. Watt to a new contract ahead of the 2021 NFL season, but the outside linebacker's availability for the team's Week 1 game against the Buffalo Bills could be jeopardized if the deal isn't finalized soon.
ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported the update Sunday on SportsCenter with one week until the Steelers travel to Highmark Stadium to face the Bills:
"Watt has not been practicing in full with his team all preseason and this has been hard on Watt, I'm told, because he's a football guy all the way. The man is frustrated. He wants to be out there, but he knows the business and he's going to need to be the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL, or at least around there. The Steelers know this. They are optimistic that something will get done here in short order, but because of the money involved it's been a complicated deal.
"And so, if something's not done in the next, say, the next 48-to-72 hours, he's definitely going to be in jeopardy of missing Week 1 because the Steelers stay tried-and-true to guys needing to practice in order to play. He's been out there in individual drills and things like that, but they need more."
Watt is scheduled to enter the final year of his rookie contract, which includes a $10.1 million salary for the 2021 season.
The two-time First Team All-Pro hasn't said much about the state of negotiations with the Steelers aside from confirming his desire to remain with the franchise when he arrived to training camp.
"Obviously, I would love to be here [long term]," Watt told reporters. "But all of those decisions aren't really mine to be made. So I am just here right now trying to get better every day."
The 26-year-old Wisconsin product has earned a contract that'll pay him among the league's best at the position after he racked up 49.5 sacks across his first four seasons, including an NFL-high 15 in 2020.
Khalil Mack of the Chicago Bears owns the richest contract among outside linebackers based on every key metric, including total value ($141 million), guaranteed money ($60 million) and average yearly value ($23.5 million), per Spotrac.
The Steelers also have the financial flexibility to tear up the last year of Watt's current deal if necessary as they head toward the 2021 campaign with $14.9 million in cap space.
Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert praised the three-time Pro Bowler in late July.
"T.J. Watt is proven to be a very good defensive player," Colbert said. "There's nothing you can add to what he's done on the field, other than win a championship. ... We've had a lot of great players come through here. But a Super Bowl champion is the one thing we want them all to experience at some point."
Colbert also noted the front office planned to keep its longstanding policy of not negotiating new contracts while the season is in progress, though.
"I never ever see that changing because our only focus should be on winning the Super Bowl," he said.
So it sets the stage for an important seven-day stretch as Watt and the Steelers try to wrap up a long-term extension, and it raises questions about what will happen if Week 1 arrives without one.
The linebacker hasn't been a full-scale holdout so far, but it's unclear whether he's willing to play out the 2021 season without a new deal.
Melvin Ingram III figures to enter the starting lineup opposite Alex Highsmith if Watt isn't on the field against the Bills.