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Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt has deftly managed to send a message to team management this summer without incurring hefty CBA-mandated fines for holding out of camp. Entering into the final year of his rookie deal, Watt has established himself as a star player who is worthy of resetting the market, and as such has been attending all mandated practices but opting to sit out all team activities in those practices. In coach Mike Tomlin’s own words, Watt is “working hard with our trainers,” words typically reserved for players coming back from injury, which tells you everything you need to know. Watt is self-isolating from the team until a new deal gets inked.
The Steelers have an organizational mandate against negotiating new player deals during the season, according to team president and owner Art Rooney II, so the new deal would have to be struck quickly. Otherwise, the Steelers risk losing Watt to free agency next season.
“We’d like to get T.J.’s deal done, if we can, before the start of the season,” Rooney said earlier this week. “That’s the goal.
“… I try not to get optimistic or pessimistic. I’ve seen these things go so many different ways over the years. We’re just going to do our best, and I think both sides want to get something done, so that’s always a good thing.”
Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler obviously wants his star rusher back on the field as soon as possible, but as a former player’s union representative himself, Butler knows what’s at stake here.
“I don’t blame him for that because you don’t want to get hurt when you’re trying to get your contract done,” said Butler. “You kind of lose some flexibility in terms of what kind of contract you can sign. So, I don’t blame him for that. I hope they get it done. I’ve always been for the players. I struck twice for the players. I knew I wasn’t going to get the money that they get. I want them to make as much money as they can in this league. I think they deserve it.”
Watt finished second to Aaron Donald in Defensive Player of the Year voting last season after tallying 15 sacks, two forced fumbles, an interception, and 23 tackles for loss. Thus far through camp, Watt has declined to talk about his contract situation. Butler also acknowledged that Watt’s situation has not been a distraction for the defensive unit.
“Everybody knows T.J,” Butler said. “Everybody knows that he’s a good teammate. He wants to be out there. He really wants to be out there, but some things you’ve got to just do. This is a business. We all love to think it’s a game, but when it’s all said and done, it’s a business.”