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Why T.J. Watt Drama Might Have Something To Do With J.J. Watt

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T.J. Watt is inarguably one the NFL’s best pass-rushers right now because he had more sacks than anyone last season, his 102 quarterback hits have led the league the last two years, and his 49.5 sacks is fifth in the league over the past four seasons.

So it makes sense Watt, part of the prolific Watt football clan that includes brothers J.J. and Derek, wants a contract extension now. And he doesn’t just want any contract extension.

Watt would really like to be the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player.

And so far, that and the details of making that happen have been a problem for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The problem is quite public because while the sides have talked, Watt declined throughout training camp and the preseason to participate in 11 on 11 drills or preseason games. He’s staged what agents and others are calling a “hold in” that, unlike the classic holdout, has the player report for duty at the team facility so as to not subject himself to the NFL’s unforgiving fine schedule.

But like the holdout, the player doesn’t really work. He kinda works. Sorta works.

But doesn’t do anything strenuous enough to risk injury.

The Steelers, a proud franchise, has responded to this tactic during the contract negotiations with a grin-and-bear it approach.

But now it’s game week.

The Steelers open at the Buffalo Bills on Sunday. And they need Watt ready to go.

Except Watt may not be fully ready to go. And Watt may or may or may not be a full participant in practice on Wednesday when the team gathers for the first day of their game week preparation.

This no doubt vexes coach Mike Tomlin, who on Tuesday made his expectations about Watt abundantly clear.

“I remain optimistic something is going to be get done from a deal perspective,” Tomlin said. “That aside, I’m expecting him to work tomorrow. I’m proceeding with the assumption that he’s going to work tomorrow. That’s kind of the approach I’m taking.

“He’s missed some time due to obvious reasons. But like I’ve also mentioned over the course of this team development process, I focus very little on those who aren’t working, for whatever reason that they’re not working. I tend to focus my energy on those that are.”

Again, Watt has not taken one team drill snap all summer. So, are you sure Wednesday will be different, Mike?

“You know,” Tomlin responded, “I don’t know how more clear I can give it to you. I’m proceeding with the assumption he’ll be a full participant and working tomorrow.”

There are a few possibilities here:

Either Tomlin knows the contract talks between Watt and the team are close to an agreement and all will be done by Wednesday.

Or Watt is about to cave and practice Wednesday sans a contract extension for reasons only he knows.

Or Tomlin is just hoping for the best.

Based on the reporting on the ground, it sounds like one of the latter two choices are at play. Because a deal getting done soon doesn’t sound promising.

https://twitter.com/gerrydulac/status/1435282104879882246

(Wonder if any of this makes Dolphins fans feel better that GM Chris Grier selected draft bust Charles Harris with the 22nd overall selection and the Steelers grabbed Watt with the No. 30 pick?)

Anyway, the sides have kind of been entrenched since February, and the negotiations pit a football family with a lot of pride versus a football team with a lot of history and traditional ways of operating.

Watt, you should know, is actually signed for 2021. He’s scheduled to make $10.089 million fully guaranteed. The issue is he wants to soar into the $25-$27 million per year contract range. And he wants a lot of that money guaranteed.

Did I mention the Steelers have a way of doing things, established through years of success and tradition?

They don’t generally offer full guarantees on contracts beyond Year One.

The solution seems simple, right? It’s 2021, NFL players routinely get guarantees beyond Year One and Watt, a workhorse who will not suddenly get comfortable after he’s paid, probably is a safe bet on that score.

But the Steelers could be looking at Watt’s brother and guarding against what happened to the Houston Texans happening to them.

J.J. Watt was a beast his first five seasons, collecting 74.5 sacks and posting two seasons with 20.5 sacks. So he got a big extension in 2014 that stretched through 2020.

The problem is Watt wasn’t as productive during the extension’s new years. The player who collected those 74.5 sacks his first five seasons has had 26.5 sacks his last five seasons.

It’s a cautionary tale of paying a big salary guarantee years in advance but not getting the same production.

So the Steelers could have something of a point, although they obviously have to compromise. (Either that or they have to trade Watt for maybe a couple of first-round picks.)

The stunning thing is the sides have allowed this to go on for so long without resolution. So Tomlin has had to make other plans in case T.J. Watt isn’t quite T.J. Watt when the season begins.

“We’ve had a lot of things to focus on at the outside linebacker position during the time he hasn’t been working,” Tomlin said. “The acclimation of Melvin Ingram, the development of (Jamir) Jones, the continued development of (Alex) Highsmith. I’ve been pleased with all those fronts.

“So I’m proceeding with the assumption (Watt’s) working tomorrow and he gets to add his talents to that collection and the development of that collection.”

Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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Written by Armando Salguero

Armando Salguero has covered the NFL since 1990 for the Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald and ESPN. He was a 2016 Associated Press Sports Editors Top 10 columnist. He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector and AP All-Pro team voter.

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