The Pittsburgh Steelers navigated potential salary cap chaos this offseason and will head into the 2021 NFL Draft in cap compliance. With prized edge rusher T.J. Watt just a year away from hitting free agency, Pittsburgh needs to prepare itself to open up the checkbook.
Watt, a first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, has been sensational to begin his career. Entering his age-26 season, the 6-foot-4 linebacker has earned two first-team All-Pro selections, made the Pro Bowl three times and won AFC Defensive Player of the Year this past season.
The Steelers know Watt is an integral part of one of the NFL’s best defenses. If they want to retain that status, it means ownership showing a willingness to make him one of the highest-paid players in the NFL. On Thursday, team owner Art Rooney said the Steelers will pursue a contract extension with Watt.
It doesn’t have to happen immediately. Watt is under contract for $10.1 million this season. While he is eligible for free agency next spring, Pittsburgh would almost certainly apply the exclusive franchise tag. With that in mind, let’s take a look at what a long-term contract might look like.
Examining a potential T.J. Watt contract extension for the Steelers
Watt is one of the best edge rushers in the NFL, his track record speaks for itself. He is tremendous coming off the edge and his presence also helps his teammates. According to ESPN’s Next Gen Stats, Watt created the third-most sacks (14.5) in the NFL last season. Unsurprisingly, his own numbers are just as incredible.
- T.J. Watt stats (2018): 52 total pressures, 21 quarterback hits, 13 sacks, 12 tackles for loss
- T.J. Watt stats (2019): 81 total pressures, 36 quarterback hits, 14.5 sacks, 14 tackles for loss
- T.J. Watt stats (2020): 73 total pressures, 41 quarterback hits, 15 sacks, 23 tackles for loss
Those statistics are ridiculous. Keep in mind, they don’t even account for his 17 forced fumbles in four NFL seasons. Just as impressive, Watt has earned a 90-plus grade from Pro Football Focus in each of the past two seasons.
When negotiating a contract, a player’s durability and age play a factor. Watt has missed just two games in his first four years in the NFL. Keep in mind, one of those games was purely for rest in a meaningless Week 17 game this past season. There’s also plenty of youth on his side, turning 27 in October.
Next, we need to consider what Watt’s peers are making. Edge rusher is arguably the second-most important position in the NFL, with offensive tackle drawing the other consideration. With the NFL salary cap rising next year and even higher in the future, thanks to new TV contracts, salaries will climb even higher than they are now.
Who is the highest-paid defensive player in the NFL?
- Los Angeles Chargers edge rusher Joey Bosa: Five-year, $135 million contract. $102 million total guaranteed, $78 fully guaranteed, $27 million annually.
- Cleveland Browns edge rusher Myles Garrett: Five-year, $125 million contract. $100 million total guaranteed, $50 million fully guaranteed, $25 million annually.
- Chicago Bears edge rusher Khalil Mack: Six-year, $141 million contract. $90 million total guaranteed, $60 million fully guaranteed, $23.5 million per year.
Watt deserves to be the highest-paid defensive player in NFL history and one of the most storied franchise in professional sports can afford to make that happen. The Steelers can’t let Watt hit the open market, so a long-term extension is in the organization’s best interest.
A five-year contract seems to be the target for many pass rushers. It would allow Watt another opportunity to cash in later in his career, landing one more mega deal. With that in mind, here’s a projection for a potential extension.
- Projected T.J. Watt contract: Five years, $142.5 million contract. $105 million total guaranteed, $85 million fully guaranteed at signing, $28.5 million annually.