Cam Heyward, Minkah Fitzpatrick keeping close eyes on T.J. Watt's contract situation

By Ray Fittipaldo

Steelers quarterback and offensive captain Ben Roethlisberger voiced his support for T.J Watt on Wednesday, and defensive captain Cam Heyward did the same Thursday morning. Watt, the two-time All-Pro who is seeking a new contract as the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, shouldn’t have to wait this long to get his new deal from Steelers ownership.

“We all feel like T.J. should be paid,” Heyward said. “He’s put in the time and the work. He’s a productive player. He doesn’t have an injury history. He’s been out here. He doesn’t miss many games. He’s a game-changer. My conversations with him are he should be paid. It’s not anything to gloss over. This guy has been a contributor for us for a long time. Where he got drafted we were very lucky. We all knew he was going to be a player here. He’s answered the call and done more.”

Heyward went through a similar negotiation last year around this time. He did not sign until eight days before the first game. He admitted there were times when he wondered if the Steelers were going to sign him or let him become a free agent after the season.

Negotiations dragged on, doubt crept in. At one point said during the drawn-out back-and-forth with ownership, Heyward said, “It takes two to tango.”

He eventually signed for $65 million over four years, but there were some uncomfortable moments that created hard feelings along the way.

“Until I signed to be honest,” he said, laughing, when asked how long it took him to get over those feelings. “You want to be part of this team. You put in so much hard work. You just want it to be reciprocated.”

The Steelers open the regular season in three days in Buffalo against the defending AFC East division champions. It’s apparent Heyward and his teammates would prefer a resolution to Watt’s contractual situation sooner rather than later.

“For me personally, I just want to focus in on teams in front of me,” Heyward said. “I let my agent handle most of it. But at the same time I was like, ‘What’s it going to take?’ I’m sure TJ is going through it now. The main thing is we want to focus on the Buffalo Bills. For a guy like T.J. I know he wants it behind him, and we need to get it done.”

Safety Minkah Fitzpatrick is paying close attention to what’s going on with Watt because next year he’ll likely be going through the same thing.

Like Watt, he’s been a first-team All-Pro the past two seasons, and the Steelers are going to have to make him among the highest-paid defensive backs in the league if they want to retain his services.

“It's a similar situation to where I could be next year or in the future," Fitzpatrick said. "So I'm talking to him and just kind of getting a feel for how the organization and everybody else is going about it.

"It is what it is. It's business. I don't really have too much to say about it. Everybody has a way that they do business, and you have to respect it.”

Watt is scheduled to speak with reporters following practice on Friday afternoon.

‘It’s going to be on us’

Heyward wasn’t mincing words on another subject, either. He sees what everyone else does when it comes to the Steelers’ offense: The defense is going to have to carry the team as the new offense under coordinator Matt Canada finds its footing.

One day after Roethlisberger said he expected some growing pains with a unit that could start four rookies, Heyward embraced the defense having the onus put on its shoulders.

“I feel very confident in our group,” he said. “I think we have a very sound unit, to be honest, from back end to front end. We have a lot of moving parts, but a good blend of old and new.

“I just look for us to mesh early because it’s going to be on us. There will be a lot of hiccups on the other side with newer guys. The defense has to be very steady going forward.”

The defense has four new starters. Chris Wormley is replacing Stephon Tuitt at the defensive end spot opposite Heyward until Tuitt comes back from injured reserve. Cam Sutton is a new starting cornerback, Alex Highsmith replaces Bud Dupree at outside linebacker, and Joe Schobert is a new starter at inside linebacker.

Schobert and/or Devin Bush will communicate the defensive calls to the rest of the defense. It’s no small matter to Heyward, who noted how Vince Williams handled those duties in previous seasons.

“We’ve had Vince Williams in that role for a long time,” Heyward said. “He was very accustomed to it. Devin got hurt last year. He was playing catch-up. Joe is playing even more catch-up.

“It’s just about understanding how they talk and how they communicate, what we like to hear as a D-line. But they’re doing a good job. It’s something they’ll continue to get better with.”

Schobert, acquired in a trade with Jacksonville three weeks ago, is getting more comfortable, but he said he’s still in question-asking mode with coaches and teammates as he digests a new playbook.

“I’m learning,” Schobert said. “It’s my sixth scheme in six years, which is kind of nuts to think about. I have a lot of veteran guys on the defense I can ask questions to. I can go up to any of them and get the answers. It’s been a pretty good transition for me.”

Watt on pitch count

Defensive coordinator Keith Butler has a couple of worries with his outside linebackers for the opener. Watt, of course, is the main one, but Highsmith is dealing with a groin injury the coaches have been managing this week.

With his two starters likely being limited in some capacity, it’s going to mean increased reps for Melvin Ingram and Jamir Jones. Ingram, who was signed just before the start of training camp, is a 10-year veteran, but Jones has never played in an NFL game.

“I think we have to be careful about how many plays he plays,” Butler said of Watt. “He’s a veteran. He knows how he feels. We just have to be smart enough to know how much is too much and how much is too little. We want to keep him healthy if we can.”

Highsmith did not practice Thursday. In other injury news, defensive lineman Tyson Alualu (elbow) and center Kendrick Green (thumb) were full participates after being out and limited on Wednesday.

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