Steelers sign T.J. Watt to new $122M deal ahead of season opener

By Gerry Dulac and Ray Fittipaldo

Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt signed a new five-year contract Thursday afternoon, ending a summer-long negotiation that had become contentious in the past week.

The deal is worth $122.1 million with $80 million fully guaranteed. Some media outlets are reporting the deal makes Watt the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player.

It’s a matter of semantics, but typically when agents leak contract details to national media outlets, the bigger the numbers, the better. ESPN and NFL Network are reporting the extension is worth $112 million over four years with an average annual salary of $28 million, which is more than Los Angeles Chargers edge rusher Joey Bosa.

Bosa signed a deal last year with an average annual salary of $27 million.

But no matter how the contracts are interpreted, Watt now joins the ranks of the league’s highest earners. Myles Garrett of Cleveland signed a deal last summer averaging $25 million a year. Khalil Mack of Chicago has an average annual salary of $23.5 million.

Watt earned the new contract by establishing himself as a premier pass rusher the past few seasons. He enters the 2021 season with 49 ½ career sacks, with 42 ½ of them coming over the past three seasons.

Watt earned first-team All-Pro honors the past two seasons.

He reported to training camp on time and was at practice every day, but he did not participate in team drills until Wednesday afternoon. He is expected to play in Sunday’s season opener in Buffalo, but defensive coordinator Keith Butler said earlier Thursday that Watt’s playing time might be reduced due to his lack of practice time.

“I think we have to be careful about how many plays he plays,” Butler said. “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.”

Even though Watt had not been participating in team drills, he worked on his strength and conditioning throughout camp. The biggest issue, Butler said, is being in football shape and getting used to the physical nature of the sport.

On Tuesday, head coach Mike Tomlin didn’t want to put limitations on Watt when he did return, citing his first-hand experience of watching Aaron Donald of the Rams hold out for most of the summer and later that year be named NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

“We’ll play it by ear,” Tomlin said. “What I’m not going to do is assume he’s regular or normal. Guys in the position he’s in are in that position because of their unique talents, skill sets and 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 L.A. and performed immediately to an Aaron Donald standard. Guys like those guys routinely do what others can’t. I have that perspective on his readiness and the anticipated quality of this play.”

Steelers defensive end Cam Heyward, who earlier Thursday voiced his support for his teammate, welcomed the news on Twitter saying “Happy for my dude” and tagging Watt.

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