T.J. Watt could miss Steelers’ opener vs. Bills amid contract dispute, per report

Written by on September 6, 2021

T.J. Watt is widely considered a favorite to win 2021 Defensive Player of the Year honors entering a contract season with the Steelers. That’s assuming the star pass rusher suits up for Pittsburgh, which might not be the case in Week 1. According to ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler, Watt’s availability for the Steelers’ season opener against the Bills on Sunday appears “in doubt” barring a last-minute agreement on a new contract. The Pro Bowler did not fully participate in a single team practice throughout training camp, and his practice status ahead of Sunday’s matchup has not changed while he seeks a pay raise.

Watt, who exploded for a career-high 15 sacks in 2020, is not technically a holdout considering he’s attended every practice since the summer began. But he participated exclusively in individual drills during camp, working out away from the rest of the team in an effort to accelerate talks on a new deal. Coach Mike Tomlin will reportedly address Watt’s absence on Tuesday, but some have speculated that Sunday’s kickoff could serve as an unofficial deadline for an extension, considering the Steelers have long refused to negotiate new contracts during the season.

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Watt is due $10 million in 2021, the final year on his rookie contract. According to ProFootballTalk, he’s seeking not only to become the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, with an average annual salary exceeding $27 million per year, but to receive additional guaranteed money this season and beyond. Inflated base salaries at the back end of a long-term extension would easily allow the Steelers to make Watt the game’s top-paid defender, ProFootballTalk speculates, but “it won’t be easy to get full guarantees beyond the first year of the deal,” especially if the clock is ticking on negotiations.

Watt missing any games would be a big blow to a Pittsburgh defense more dependent on his pass rush in the wake of Bud Dupree’s offseason departure. The former first-round pick has seen his sack total increase in three straight seasons, logging double-digit sacks every year since 2018 as the club’s most disruptive playmaker up front. His 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss in 2020 led the NFL.

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