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Steelers Are Botching the T.J. Watt Contract Negotiations

Liam McKeone
TJ Watt
TJ Watt / Joe Sargent/Getty Images
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T.J. Watt is a very good football player, as you may have heard. He had a strong case for winning Defensive Player of the Year last season, although it is no shame that he lost out to Aaron Donald, an actual superhero who plays football. Like his brother, Watt is the type of generational defender a defense can build around. The type of guy teams want on their team for an entire career.

The Pittsburgh Steelers apparently disagree. I'm sure Mike Tomlin and the front office value Watt as highly as anybody else. But their actions to this point suggest otherwise. Watt is up for a contract extension this year and everyone assumes he will be making quite a bit of money in this new deal.

To this point, there has been no deal. Recent reports have suggested the reason for this lies within the Steelers' archaic mindset when it comes to negotiations. Aditi Kinkhabwala reported yesterday Pittsburgh's refusal to guarantee any money past the first year of a deal could "sink" extension talks. The front office also insists that extensions cannot be negotiated during the regular season. Mike Florio reported earlier this week that Watt wants guaranteed money past the first year of his deal, and if the Steelers stick to their guns, negotiations will end this weekend.

To recap: the Steelers are playing hardball with their best defender by a wide margin, an edge rusher who wrecked games last year to the tune of 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss, both of which led the league. He's forced 10 fumbles over the last two seasons. He even swatted away seven pass attempts and recorded an interception in 2020. Yet the Steelers won't lock him up long-term before the final year of his rookie deal because of... principle?

That sure looks like the case. It's just coming down to Pittsburgh's principles. Nobody can or will dispute that Watt has earned a huge new deal. He is universally acclaimed as one of the league's top defenders. But because he wants to know for a fact that the team will keep paying him no matter what happens, the Steelers are willing to let the relationship sour.

This is the type of thing you pull with an undrafted rookie who ended up contributing on special teams more than anyone thought. Not a former first-round pick who is, by any broad definition of the term, irreplaceable.

The Steelers should know that better than anybody and at some point will probably concede something to lock Watt down long-term. Cooler football heads will prevail. But right now, the outlook is grim. It is not unreasonable for Watt to demand guarantees past the first year of his deal, and because it is not unreasonable it's hard to see him budging from that point. The Steelers' insistence to sticking to "This is the way we've always done it" can't possibly be making a positive impression on the player. Negotiations stalling because of dollar signs is one thing. This is just old-fashioned personnel men sticking to their guns because they want to and in the past they could.

Why risk it being different this time around? What, exactly, are the Steelers gaining here other than telling the best player on the team that tradition means more than production? There is simply no reason to risk aggravating a franchise player over how things *should* be according to the people in charge who were probably grinding tape using an overhead projector while Watt was in elementary school.

It's a risky maneuver by Pittsburgh with no evident payoff other than self-satisfaction. Doesn't seem smart.

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