While the bulk of the attention for the Pittsburgh Steelers this offseason in terms of signing players has been paid to Bud Dupree, given that he is slated to be an unrestricted free agent, there is a strong argument to be made that his fellow edge defender, T.J. Watt, is equally deserving of receiving a new contract now.
That is in spite of the fact that the Steelers technically control his rights for the next two seasons. He is entering his fourth year, and the team will certainly pick up his fifth-year option for 2021. Traditionally, the team works to extend their first-round picks as they head into their fifth season, if they play at a high level, as they have done for Cameron Heyward and David DeCastro—and would have for Ryan Shazier.
Pro Football Focus recently published an article in which they looked to name the top players in the NFL right now who are most deserving of receiving an early contract extension, which generally means players who have more than one year left under contract or under their current team’s control. Timo Riske writes:
After Myles Garrett swung his way into a suspension, T.J Watt is left as the only member of a then-promising class of edge rushers who has proven to be an upper-class pass rusher in the NFL. His 90.7 pass-rush grade is the fifth-highest among all edge rushers since 2017 and he isn’t a liability against the run, either, as his 84.0 run-defense grade ranks 15th in the same timeframe. Our Bayesian forecast for him looks very favorable — the best estimate for him is 95th percentile after he made huge strides in both Year 2 and Year 3.
Watt was one of the site’s highest-graded players in the entire league last season, a player whom they regard as elite after he broke out in 2019 with 14.5 sacks and eight forced fumbles, not to mention four fumble recoveries and two interceptions, plus strong run defense.
A 2017 first-round pick, and the youngest of the Watt brothers, he was a day-one starter and has played consistently well, while also consistently getting better. He played well for a rookie in 2017, then played well for anybody in 2018, before playing extremely well last year. He finished third in the Defensive Player of the Year voting.
“His WAR forecast translates to an average annual salary of $13.4 million over the next two years, but we expect him to sign a larger contract”, Riske adds. “Our PFF WAR numbers for pass rushers are fairly low because it turned out pass-rushing performance has a lower correlation to wins than one might think. Nevertheless, it’s reasonable to pay some extra dollars for the consistency of pass rushers, as their floor is much higher than for coverage players”.
Nevertheless, don’t be surprised if the Steelers do nothing with Watt this year. He only counts about $3 million against the salary cap in 2020. They could hardly afford to more than triple that figure.