Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt is staging a hold-in. Although Watt has been in attendance at training camp since it opened, he is not participating in any hitting or team drills. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler confirmed that is because Watt is waiting on a contract extension.
“I don’t blame him for [sitting out] because you don’t want to get hurt when you are trying to get your contract done; then you lose some sort of flexibility in terms of what you can sign,” Butler said (via Mark Kaboly of The Athletic). “I hope they get it done.”
The Steelers do not like to engage in contract negotiations once a season begins, which means that the club’s Week 1 matchup with the Bills on September 12 would be the deadline for finalizing a Watt extension this year. But while head coach Mike Tomlin generally eases his top players into the grind of training camp, the team still wants Watt to get involved in team activities well before the regular season opener.
Regardless of when it happens, the Steelers will need to dole out a ton of cash to keep Watt in the fold for the long haul. Kaboly expects the Wisconsin product to become the highest-paid defensive player in league history, which would mean an AAV of over $27MM with roughly $80MM in full guarantees.
Watt’s performance to date justifies that type of expenditure. Stout against the run and pass, the 26-year-old (27 in October) graded out as Pro Football Focus’ third-best edge player last season out of 108 qualifiers. He is a three-time Pro Bowler and two-time First Team All-Pro, and he has averaged about 14 sacks a year since his sophomore campaign. Even though Pittsburgh is entering something of an organizational crossroads due to its quarterback situation, retaining Watt seems like an absolute must.
The club did add a little pass rushing support for Watt when it signed Melvin Ingram last month. Pittsburgh was also in on Justin Houston, who ultimately signed with the division-rival Ravens. Houston himself said he was very close to signing with the Steelers, but that Baltimore was his first choice (Twitter link via Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic). Ingram, like Houston, is a complementary piece at this stage of his career, and his presence doesn’t necessarily give Pittsburgh any more leverage in Watt negotiations.
Photo courtesy of USA Today Sports Images.