Steelers' T.J. Watt Next in Line to Become Game's Highest-Paid Defender

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 31, 2020

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) rushes Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17) during the first half of an NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

The NFL's market for non-quarterbacks was recently reset within a fortnight's time, but Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt sits next in line to take the title as the game's highest-paid defender. 

Myles Garrett's run with the most guaranteed money among those not taking snaps lasted exactly 13 days. The defensive end's then-record deal carries $100 million in guarantees and averages $25 million per season over five years, per NFL Network's Ian Rapoport.

The Los Angeles Chargers surpassed the Cleveland Browns' massive agreement when defensive end Joey Bosa signed a deal Tuesday worth $102 million guaranteed and $27 million annually, according to the Associated Press

Typically, the next top quarterback in his prime to hit the market usually resets the pay scale (though that'll likely change after Patrick Mahomes signed a 10-year, $450 million mega-extension with the Kansas City Chiefs on July 6). 

This isn't necessarily the case for other spots.

For example, Jack Conklin entered this offseason as the top free-agent offensive tackle. The previous two offseasons, both Nate Solder and Trenton Brown reset the positional market despite not being named to a Pro Bowl or All-Pro team at that point in their careers. At 25 years old, Conklin already made an All-Pro squad, yet his three-year, $42 million deal with the Browns fell short of the financial numbers the previously mentioned tackles made once they tested the open market.

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Garrett, Bosa and Watt, though, are elite talents at a premium position—in this case, edge-rusher—and are entering negotiation windows before their rookie contracts end to get a deal done earlier in their careers. Franchises can take advantage by locking down these marquee performers.

An argument can be made in Garrett's or Bosa's favor as the game's best edge defender. Both are 25 or younger, and they've proved themselves on the field—which is exactly why Watt is the logical option to surpass both from a monetary perspective.

As good as that duo is, an NFL contract is all about what an individual can do moving forward, not the accolades he already achieved. 

Garrett said it best after officially signing his life-changing contract. 

"Now I have to assert myself as top dog," he said, per ESPN's Jake Trotter. "I feel like I'm confident and ready to do that.

"Time to prove it."

David Richard/Associated Press

Watt is on the precipice of something special, and he entered the initial window (after his third season) to negotiate a contract extension this offseason.

Last season, no edge defender graded higher than the 2017 30th overall draft pick, according to Pro Football Focus. The site credited him with 81 total pressures, and he tied for the league lead with eight forced fumbles. He also batted more passes than any other edge defender and nabbed a pair of interceptions.

The latter is important for an outside linebacker in the 3-4 system. Yes, defenses are in nickel or dime more often than base looks, but Watt is still asked to drop in space more than a typical edge defender. His athleticism to play the passing lanes and create game-changing opportunities in that area makes him a complete defender. 

"He does it in every category," a veteran NFL defensive coach told ESPN's Jeremy Fowler. "If he had [Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end] Josh Allen's athletic ability, he would be No. 1 on this list [of top-10 edge-rushers for 2020]."

Watt incrementally improved in each of his three seasons to the point where he should be a regular addition to NFL Defensive Player of the Year conversations. A small tweak to Pittsburgh's defensive approach allowed the linebacker to establish more comfort a year ago, which should help his progression.

The Steelers coaching staff swapped Watt and Bud Dupree, and the third-year defender finally played his natural position on the left side. Watt admitted something wasn't quite right while he played on the other side during an interview with Teresa Varley of the team's official site:

"I don't know why, but on the right side I felt like I couldn't see through the left tackle to the quarterback to see what was happening. On the left side, I felt more comfortable. I could see the quarterback's arm motion. I could get up and affect more passes, even though I didn't bat down nearly as many passes as I wanted to. I am a right-handed dominant player too. Overall, it was way more comfortable. If I go over to the right side now for a rep or two, it feels weird."

Watt went from a Pro Bowler with 13 sacks during the '18 campaign to one of the game's elite as a first-team All-Pro after making the change. 

Only three players—the Los Angeles Rams' Aaron Donald, Arizona Cardinals' Chandler Jones and Minnesota Vikings' Danielle Hunter—managed more sacks than Watt's 27.5 over the last two seasons. All three are locked into significant deals signed within the last three years. 

The league's ongoing issues during the COVID-19 pandemic could be problematic as the Steelers attempt to extend Watt. The '21 salary cap could dip as low as $175 million, which is $23.2 million less than this season's cap. However, the previous number could vary if revenues this fall are better than expected, per NFL Network's Mike Garafolo

In a worst-case scenario, the Steelers are already a projected $17.9 million over next season's cap number, though other organizations are in worse financial predicaments. 

How could Pittsburgh possibly make Watt the game's highest-paid defender during these trying financial times? The deal can be structured similarly to Garrett's.

Don Wright/Associated Press

The front office can add to the existing two years on Watt's deal, thus minimizing his salary-cap hits before balloon payments come due in '22 and beyond. As of the '22 campaign, the Steelers will have far more wiggle room since a series of hefty pacts, such as those of Cameron Heyward, Alejandro Villanueva, Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Haden and Ben Roethlisberger will be off the books as Pittsburgh looks to transition away from its aging core. 

Watt will then become the franchise cornerstone, with Stephon Tuitt, Minkah Fitzpatrick, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Mike Hilton and Devin Bush Jr. potentially being key contributors over the long haul. 

The 25-year-old Watt is an excellent representative and potential face of Steelers football as one of the best defenders in the game. His eventual contract extension should reflect his standing with the organization, and the asking price is already established, with Garrett and then Bosa setting the table for discussions. 

                    

Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @brentsobleski. Salary-cap info via Spotrac unless otherwise noted. 

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