Before the Pittsburgh Steelers returned to practice on Monday there was a rumor that All-Pro outside linebacker T.J. Watt would be a “full participant, with or without a contract.” But that rumor proved to be unfounded. “[A]s he ha[s] done throughout camp, Watt worked on the side with strength and conditioning coaches and was not involved in team drills,” noted Ray Fittipaldo of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
While there had been hope that an agreement would be reached in time for Watt to practice with his teammates in preparation for Sunday’s game at Buffalo, that hope is dwindling by the day.
T.J. Watt’s Status for Sunday is ‘Up in the Air’
“Negotiations are ongoing [but] they have been extremely difficult and [Watt’s status] is up in the air as we get closer to the opener,” noted Ian Rapoport of NFL Network on Monday. “At this point, I would say all eyes are on Friday and Saturday, because that is when the Steelers cut off contract negotiations before the start of the season.”
Rapoport alludes to the fact that the Steelers have a longstanding rule of not negotiating contracts during the season, so if a deal does not get done by Saturday night—or perhaps Sunday morning at the very latest—negotiations will come to an end and Watt will have to make a choice: Play out the last year of his rookie contract (at $10,089,000, under the fifth-year option the Steelers exercised last year) or engage in a Le’Veon Bell-like holdout.
“Certainly we haven’t seen players in this new CBA hold out,” reminds Rapoport, and it seems almost unfathomable that Watt would take such an approach. Moreover, it’s not unusual for Steelers stars to sign contract extensions a day or two before the season opener, as did Troy Polamalu in 2011.
On the other hand, this situation is different in that Watt presumably wants to re-set the market and become the highest-paid defensive player ever, while also receiving more guaranteed money than the Steelers normally offer. At the moment, the highest paid defender in the league is Los Angeles Chargers edge rusher Joey Bosa, who averages $27 million per year, with 57.8% of his money guaranteed. The next-highest compensated defender is Cleveland Browns edge Myles Garrett, who is on a five-year deal that pays his $25 million per year with 40% guaranteed.
It’s also difficult to get a sense of exactly where things stand because neither Watt’s camp nor the team’s camp have said much of anything in recent months, not since Watt met with the media in mid-June and indicated he would “not be talking” about his contract situation or negotiations.
It’s perhaps worth noting, though, that T.J. Watt was not voted as a team captain this year, considering that he was a defensive co-captain with Cameron Heyward last season.
T.J. Watt, Steelers Have Sack Records in Their Sights
It’s also worth noting that the ongoing contract impasse could damage Pittsburgh’s chances of winning its season-opener at Buffalo, a team that is seen as a Super Bowl contender. Missing one or more games could also jeopardize Watt’s chances of equaling a Reggie White sack record, as well as the team’s chances of equaling a longstanding NFL record for most consecutive seasons with 50+ sacks.
If Watt isn’t available—or is relegated to a minimal role—the Steelers will start free agent acquisition Melvin Ingram III in his place, pairing him with second-year outside linebacker Alex Highsmith. In that case, former undrafted free agent Jamir Jones would serve as the primary backup.
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