How the Pittsburgh Steelers can resolve the T.J. Watt contract dispute before Week 1

The Pittsburgh Steelers know how important All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt is to their success both this season and for years to come. But with the NFL star staging a holdout at training camp, it’s clear there are issues to resolve before Week 1 arrives.

Watt, the 30th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, has been one of the best players in the NFL for the past two seasons. The 26-year-old is coming off his second consecutive season with first-team All-Pro honors and is a favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.

But with the regular season just a few weeks away, Watt is on the sidelines during Pittsburgh’s training camp. As The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly detailed, it’s not due to an injury. Watt is working on the sideline, finding ways to stay prepared in the event he and the Steelers agree to a long-term deal.

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In previous years, players in Watt’s position wouldn’t report to training camp. But the new NFL CBA instituted $50,000 fines for each day of camp a player missed. By attending practices and working out on the side, the Steelers’ star avoids those penalties.

There’s no risk of Watt sitting out regular-season games this year, he will return to his role when games begin. But if the Steelers want to avoid this dragging out into next offseason and potentially getting worse, they need to take care of things right now.

What the Pittsburgh Steelers can offer T.J. Watt

Everyone in the NFL is aware of where things are headed. While the COVID-19 pandemic caused the 2021 salary cap to drop, it’s skyrocketing back up next season. With the league signing TV contracts worth more than $100 billion and expanding the game internationally, player salaries will keep climbing.

Inside players, still viewed as playing a less valuable position by NFL franchise have seen their contract values soar this offseason.

It’s great news for edge rushers who routinely generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Entering the 2021 season, the five highest-paid outside linebackers in the NFL all make $20-plus million annually. Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett ($125 million total, $25 million per season) and Los Angeles Rams outside linebacker Joey Bosa ($135 million, $27 million annually) lead their respective positions.

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Compared to his peers, Watt is the best defensive player in the NFL. Considering the state of the NFL and the direction the franchise is headed, he has zero incentive to take a discount to re-sign with the Steelers. Pittsburgh could franchise tag him next year, but that further delays the inevitable and might give him time to add to his resume.

  • T.J. Watt stats (2020): 73 pressures, 41 quarterback hits, 23 tackles for loss, 15 sacks, seven pass deflections

Watt led the NFL in quarterback hits and sacks this past season. Furthermore, per Pro Football Focus, he boasted one of the highest pass-rush win rates (27.7%) in the NFL. That last stat is important to remember because his ability to create penetration in the backfield or to force a quarterback to move sets up teammates for sacks.

Ultimately, the Steelers should present Watt with an offer that reflects his value in the NFL moving forward. That’s a five-year, $142 million contract with $85 million fully guaranteed. It’s an expensive deal, but one Pittsburgh must pay or risk losing its franchise player.

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