Steelers ‘Break Protocol,’ Make TJ Watt the NFL’s Highest Paid Defender: Report


Joe Sargent/Getty Images T.J. Watt of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after a sack against the Houston Texans on September 27, 2020.

On Thursday morning, Pittsburgh Steelers captain Cameron Heyward urged the team to “pay T.J., please.” This afternoon, the organization agreed to do just that.

According to NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport, the Steelers and Watt have agreed to a “mega-deal”—a four-year extension that will pay the All-Pro outside linebacker more than $28 million per year ($80 million guaranteed), which makes him the best-compensated defensive player in NFL history.

Per Rapoport, the team agreed to “break protocol”—that is, break the organization’s rule for not guaranteeing money beyond the first year of player contracts—to get the deal done.

Earlier this week, Rapoport had characterized the negotiations as being “extremely difficult,” with the guaranteed money a major sticking point.

But as noted by Jason Fitzgerald, founder of the, the Steelers ultimately got past the issue, as Watt is now the highest paid defender, both in terms of average annual compensation and guaranteed dollars.

Meanwhile, it seems as if Watt was able to give a little too. According to ESPN senior NFL Insider Adam Schefter, he “overruled his agents” (still in pursuit of more money) and personally told Steelers president Art Rooney that “they had a deal.”

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Watt Set to Pursue Defensive Player of the Year Honors, Sack Records

Now Pittsburgh has its best defensive player locked up for at least the next five years. This season he will attempt to win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award for the first time, having finished as runner-up in the voting in 2020 after a third-place finish in 2019. This season he will also attempt to become the first NFL player to record 13+ sacks in four consecutive seasons since the late Hall of Famer Reggie White did it between 1990-93 (and 1985-88).

Meanwhile, Watt also figures to play a critical role in giving the Steelers the chance to tie a longstanding NFL sack record. Specifically, if the Steelers can record 50 or more sacks again in 2021, it would be the fifth consecutive season the Steelers have reached that plateau, something no NFL team has accomplished since the 1980s. At the moment, three clubs share the NFL record for most consecutive seasons with 50+ sacks—the Dallas Cowboys, Chicago Bears and Washington Football Team—with all three of those teams setting the mark between 1983-87.

Last year the Steelers led the NFL in sacks with 56.

Next: Minkah Fitzpatrick

The Steelers have been engaging in contract negotiations with a major defensive star every summer. Or so it seems. Last September the team inked defensive end Cameron Heyward to a five-year extension that included more than $65 million in new money.

Next summer the Steelers do this all over again with All-Pro safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who will have one year remaining on his rookie deal come 2022.

Prior to agreeing to today’s extension, Watt had been scheduled to earn $10,089,000 under the fifth-year option on his rookie contract, which the Steelers exercised last spring.

Watt, 26, has been a member of the Steelers since he was the organization’s first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft (No. 30 overall) out of Wisconsin. During his first four seasons he played in 62 games and recorded 230 total tackles (168 solo), with 49.5 sacks, 111 quarterback hits and 59 tackles for loss, not to mention 17 forced fumbles, four interceptions, 25 passes defensed and four fumble recoveries.

It has been an exceptionally eventful summer for Watt. In July he announced his engagement to aspiring professional soccer player Dani Rhodes.

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