Steelers Need to Make T.J. Watt NFL's Highest-Paid Defender Before 2021 Season

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 9, 2021

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) during an NFL football practice, Saturday, July 24, 2021, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

There's little reason for the Pittsburgh Steelers to wait on the extension that will undoubtedly make T.J. Watt the NFL's highest-paid defender. 

It has little to do with Watt's apparent, current training camp holdout, too. It's much more so because extending him is a mere formality.

Saturday, defensive coordinator Keith Butler addressed the situation, as captured by ESPN's Brooke Pryor

"I don't blame him for that because you don't want to get hurt when you're trying to get your contract done. You kind of lose some flexibility in terms of what kind of contract you can sign. So, I don't blame him for that. I hope they get it done. As a former player rep for the players' association when I came out, I've always been for the players. I struck twice for the players. I knew I wasn't going to get the money that they get. I want them to make as much money as they can in this league. I think they deserve it."

Players don't hold a ton of leverage by holding out, but sitting out now is the right approach from Watt for the reasoning above. The Steelers have a policy of not negotiating once the regular season begins, so that's the cutoff. 

We are, after all, talking about a two-time Defensive Player of the Year finalist who is just 26 years old and a season removed from posting 53 tackles (23 for loss), a league-leading 15 sacks, 41 quarterback hits, 26 knockdowns and 61 pressures. The sacks and hits were career highs since he entered the league in 2017, as was his Approximate Value of 17, just three under the league leader's (Buffalo's Josh Allen). 


Only defenders w/ a 90+ PFF Grade in each of the last two seasons: 🔥 Aaron Donald 🔥 T.J. Watt https://t.co/PaOuSbecV1

One could argue that the Steelers will merely follow the Bud Dupree approach, having Watt play out the fifth and final season of his contract with no extension and then slapping the franchise tag on him for his sixth year. 

But realistically? That coin has two sides—treating Dupree in that manner could be seen as keeping the positional books free for Watt's inevitable monster extension so as to not put too much cash in one area. Dupree was a late-bloomer and Watt himself can be accredited for part of his outburst. The idea being, Watt gets the payday and makes those around him that much better. 

Working within that framework and based on his production to date, Watt should look for Joey Bosa numbers on the extension. The Los Angeles Chargers star inked a five-year deal worth $135 million last year, making him tops among all edge-rushers with an average annual value of $27 million. That's $2 million more in AAV than Myles Garrett of the Cleveland Browns. 

While the Steelers have just $11.6 million of cap space for 2021 right now (which feels high for them in August, anyway), Watt is already the team's fourth-highest cap hit at $10.1 million. An extension shouldn't boost his 2021 cap hit by all that much. Pittsburgh's projected cap space for 2022 is $74.4 million. 

Which loops to the next point: The Steelers might be en route to a rebuild anyway. There's plenty of room to fit a Ben Roethlisberger contract and a Watt cap hit in 2022 and beyond. But if the future Hall of Fame passer decides to retire, the Steelers will go from annually throwing one of the league's biggest cap hits at the position to likely having a rookie contract from their starting quarterback, leaving plenty of extra space. 

Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

Watt is the type of player any franchise would want to have as a foundational piece for a rebuild, never mind contention. Even just squeaking past Bosa's AAV to "reset" the market for defenders should be enough, as the ever-escalating numbers surrounding the NFL have led to the market getting "reset" at different positions several times every offseason. 

If it somehow comes to the Steelers treating Watt like Dupree, that's when the leverage really starts to play a factor. There's little chance Watt will accept playing a sixth year at a discount right in the middle of his prime compared to what he'd make on an extension—especially after seeing Dupree go down with a season-ending injury on his tag. 

Pittsburgh traditionally does right by its own, though. Dupree was an understandable tag candidate, whereas it would be a dramatic mishap to stumble when it comes to one of the NFL's best defenders. 

Things do get a little messier when considering some of the future cap space might be earmarked for a Minkah Fitzpatrick extension, too. But call it a good problem to have—the Steelers have to pay one of the league's best defensive backs. They'll manage through these tough times, right? Fitzpatrick's is still a year away, and by then, the cap space could be overflowing if staples of the last generation are gone, anyway. 

While little is a guarantee in the NFL, the Steelers extending Watt feels like the rare exception. A market-resetting deal won't be tops on the list for long anyway, they have the cap space and they need him, whether they rebuild or find a way to stay in contention in 2022.


Stats via Pro Football Reference, and salary info via Spotrac