All-Pro linebacker T.J. Watt’s next practice with the 2021 Steelers will be his first, and the truth of this statement has led to no shortage of panic among the team’s many fans.
Head coach Mike Tomlin, though, asserted he fully expects that first practice will come Wednesday, when the Steelers begin formal preparation for their opening game on the road against the Bills and that he would not be surprised to see Watt soon at the level that has led to Pro Bowl selections in three of his first four seasons.
When Watt did not participate in team drills Monday – sort of a bonus day of work following several days off during the two-week break subsequent to the exhibition season — Tomlin had promised he would address Watt’s situation in his first weekly press conference. He went through his customary preamble to discuss his team’s injury situation and the various challenges provided by the week’s opposition and never mentioned it. He waited until it was brought up as the first question from a reporter.
“I remain optimistic that something’s going to get done from a deal perspective. 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 that 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 that aren’t working, for whatever reason that they’re not working. I tend to focus my energy on those that are.”
So there’s no reason for Steelers fans to worry – at least until practice begins Wednesday.
If he is on the field then and lined up in his customary spot at left outside linebacker then, as Tomlin predicts, Watt will be positioned to open the season with the team in Buffalo despite not participating in any preseason games or team drills during training camp. He has been present during practices and engaged in individual work as his representatives attempt to work out a long-term extension with the team in advance of the final season of his rookie deal. There is an expectation he wants to become the league’s highest-paid defensive player, but he does have a year remaining under contract at $10.09 million.
“Like the rest of our organization, I’ve been optimistic about this process running its course, and so because of that optimism, I’m anticipating quality play from him this weekend and beyond.”
When a reporter later asked for clarification about Watt’s expected involvement Wednesday, whether it might be just another day of him doing individual drills away from the team, Tomlin responded, “I don’t know how more clear I can give it to you: I’m proceeding with the assumption that he’s a full participant and worker tomorrow.”
Sources began telling reporters covering the team – such as Aditi Kinkhabwala of NFL Network and Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – the team’s policy of not guaranteeing contracts beyond the first year is holding up the completion of the deal.
The #Steelers’ commitment to one main tradition -refusing to offer full guarantees beyond Year One- is threatening to sink these TJ Watt negotiations. Source had me optimistic last week that things were close. After convo w folks close to contract talks just now, I’m not as much.
— Aditi Kinkhabwala (@AKinkhabwala) September 7, 2021
It’s a foolish stand by Watt or his representatives, with no actual value beyond the opportunity to appear impressive in the initial tweet from whatever NFL insider breaks it, whether it’s Adam Schefter of ESPN or Ian Rapoport of NFL Network or someone else.
The Steelers have shown in nearly every dealing with a top draft pick they wished to extend that the contract itself is the guarantee, as well as the roster bonuses that are easily attained.
An ominous example relative to this situation was the experience of former Steelers star Le’Veon Bell. He was offered a market-busting deal for a running back but declined because of the guarantee issue and played a season under the franchise tag. He was offered another deal, even more lucrative, the following season: five years, $70 million. Bell declined, was assigned the franchise tag again but Bell chose to sit out the entire season. He signed the next year with the Jets for less money – but more guarantees. The Jets cut him in his second season. Bell’s mistrust of the Steelers front office cost him at least $14 million (the franchise-tag money he declined in 2018) and probably closer to $22 million, with more possibly to come.
If Watt turns down this offer, the Steelers will have the right to use the franchise tag on him in 2022. And 2023. And 2024. It likely wouldn’t come to that, but it seems an odd path to take given the experience of such Steelers stars as Ben Roethlisberger, Cam Heyward and even Antonio Brown, who all saw – through multiple contract extensions – how the stability of the organization becomes the guarantee players seek.
That’s even been true of many free agents — such as T.J.’s older brother, Derek. He is a fullback entering the second year of a three-year, $9.75 million contract despite missing four games last season and producing exactly zero rushing yards as he played primarily on special teams. Another franchise might have cut him after a meager first season; the Steelers brought him back, and he was voted one of the team’s three captains.
Tomlin was reluctant to give specifics about how much T.J. might play after not experiencing any contact until, potentially, this week, but did say he expected to use his bench extensively as the entire roster adjusts to the start of a regular season that will be the longest in league history: 17 games.
“One thing I’m not going to do is assume that he’s regular – you know, normal,” Tomlin said. “I think guys that are in the position that he’s in are in those positions because of their unique talents and skill set and will, if you will.
“I remember several years ago I watched Aaron Donald here in town for the vast majority of July and August, when he was in a similar circumstance. And I was not surprised when he got to LA and performed immediately to an Aaron Donald standard. I think guys like those guys routinely do what others can’t.”