PITTSBURGH — After contract negotiations that lasted throughout training camp and into the first week of the regular season, the Steelers and outside linebacker TJ Watt broke their traditions to agree a mega deal on Thursday.
Watt, 26, has signed a new five-year contract with the Steelers, it was announced Friday. The new four-year extension is worth $112 million and includes a $35 million signing bonus and an $80 million guaranteed for the next three years, a source told ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler.
Watt ignored his agents, who believed they could get more money on Thursday, marching to Steelers president Art Rooney II’s office and telling him they had a deal, according to Schefter. Watt then apologized and announced that he had to start exercising, Schefter reported.
If all is well with Yinz I would like to stay for a while!! LET PITTSBURGH GO!!!! pic.twitter.com/itjnF7XNLd
TJ Watt (@_TJWatt) September 9, 2021
“This is a man who more than deserved this contract,” defending Steelers captain Cam Heyward told ESPN on Thursday afternoon. “It’s great to know that his future is here in Pittsburgh.”
The average annual value of $28 million per season makes Watt the highest paid defensive player in the NFL. Los Angeles Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa’s five-year, $135 million extension, signed in 2020, has an average of $27 million and a guaranteed $102 million.
Watt’s deal also surpasses Chicago Bears outside linebacker Khalil Mack, who was previously the highest paid player in the position with a six-year $141 million contract signed in 2018. Mack’s deal averages $23.5 million a year and has $90 million guaranteed.
“I could cry,” tweeted cornerback Joe Haden, in response to the Watt news. “You deserve every cent!! I came to Pittsburgh in your rookie year and you’ve done nothing but show professionalism and play at the highest level in the league!!”
With the Steelers self-imposed contract deadline approaching for the season opener, week 1 negotiations pushed through as the two sides tried to agree on the guarantees of the contract.
The Steelers usually only guarantee the signing bonus, but not much else. However, during the term of the contract, the Steelers will typically restructure and provide more guaranteed money and security later, rather than upfront.
However, Watt’s case shattered that mold.
Previously, the most guaranteed money spent on a contract by the Steelers was Ben Roethlisberger’s current $67.5 million guaranteed, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Watt’s teammates publicly urged the edge rusher to get a mega deal all week. Both Roethlisberger and Heyward argued that Watt should get whatever amount he wanted.
“He is arguably the best footballer in the game right now, not just on defense but in general,” Roethlisberger said on Wednesday. “I negotiated contracts here. One of the reasons I took less money was that guys like him got paid, and he needs to be paid.”
“He earns every cent he wants and asks. TJ Watt is that man who should get what he wants.”
Watt is not the first member of his family to earn record amounts. Older brother JJ Watt, now with the Arizona Cardinals, signed a six-year, $100 million extension with the Houston Texans in 2014. JJ’s $51.8 million guaranteed and $16.6 million average were both records for an NFL defender at the time.
.@_TJWatt should I send those outstanding IOUs to your accountant or do you just want me Venmo?
JJ Watt (@JJWatt) September 9, 2021
Watt finished second to Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams in the voting for Defensive Player of the Year following his 15-sack campaign in 2020. He also added an interception and two forced fumbles for a total of 53 tackles.
Watt has accumulated double-digit bags in every season from 2018, and then recorded 13, 14.5 and 15 bags. His two forced fumbles in 2020 were the fewest since he only included one season in his rookie. He had six in 2018 and eight — along with four fumbles — in 2019. He finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting ahead of New England Patriots cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Arizona linebacker Chandler Jones in 2019.
“TJ is visiting from another planet, to be honest,” said coach Mike Tomlin during the 2020 season. “He has a bizarrely unique talent combined with bizarrely unique work habits and mindset, and it produces what you see every week, which in my opinion is the quality of the defensive player of the year.”
The Steelers parted ways with fellow outside linebacker Bud Dupree in free agency, indicating they were moving forward with Watt as the cornerstone of the defense and intent on signing him to a monster deal. This year he will anchor the left side of the pass rush and be part of a rotation with former Chargers outside linebacker Melvin Ingram and sophomore edge rusher Alex Highsmith.
The Steelers faced a tight cap in 2020 and 2021 in part due to Roethlisberger’s contract, but they restructured his deal and released longtime judge guard David DeCastro from camp, freeing up space for experienced free agents. and put Watt on a mega deal.
After this season, however, the Steelers are expected to be in a very different situation with Roethlisberger’s contract being terminated after the season. That gave them room to sign Watt to his deal.
Although he attended every training session, Watt did not fully participate in the training camp as the two sides negotiated the blockbuster. Instead, Watt worked individually with strength and conditioning coaches on the sidelines at Heinz Field during team periods.
“Everyone knows TJ,” Defense Coordinator Keith Butler said on Aug. 7. “Everyone knows he’s a good teammate. He wants to be there. He really wants to be there, but some things you just have to do. This is a business. We all like to think it’s a game, but when it’s All said and done, it’s a business.”
After holding back for the preseason, Watt rejoined the team periods in practice on Wednesday. He greeted his teammates on the field with celebratory fist punches for their first click.
“TJ is a pro,” said linebacker Joe Schobert, who played with Watt in Wisconsin. “I trained with him off-season in Waukesha [Wisconsin]. He takes the job very seriously. … Put him in the parking lot, wherever. He will be ready to play a football game.”
Speaking to the media this week before Watt wrapped up his extension, Tomlin and Butler each expressed optimism that Watt would play in Sunday’s season opener.
With the deal in place, Watt will almost certainly make his debut as the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player alongside the rest of his team against the Buffalo Bills.
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