2020 Offseason Questions: How Much Fullback Will Derek Watt Play?

The Pittsburgh Steelers are now into the offseason, following a year in which they had high hopes for Super Bowl success, but ultimately fell short of even reaching the postseason at 8-8. It was a tumultuous season, both on the field and within the roster, and the months to follow figure to have some drama as well, especially in light of the team’s failure to improve upon the year before.

The team made some bold moves over the course of the past year, and some areas of the roster look quite a bit different than they did a year ago, or even at the start of the regular season. Whether due to injuries or otherwise, a lot has transpired, and we’re left to wonder how much more will change prior to September.

How will Ben Roethlisberger’s rehab progress as he winds toward recovery from an elbow injury that cost him almost the entire season? What about some of the key young players, some of whom have already impressed, others still needing quite a bit of growth? Will there be changes to the coaching staff? The front office? Who will they not retain in free agency, and whom might they bring in?

These are the sorts of questions among many others that we have been exploring on a daily basis and will continue to do so. Football has become a year-round pastime and there is always a question to be asked, though there is rarely a concrete answer, as I’ve learned in my years of doing this.

Question: Are the Steelers planning on actually using a fullback more in their offense?

The Steelers made one free agent signing during the legal tampering window. That was for a fullback and special teamer, Derek Watt, the older brother of teammate T.J. Watt. They signed him to a three-year, $9.75 million contract.

While that might not sound like a ton of money in the grand scheme of things relative to a $200 million salary cap—just $3.25 million per year, under two percent—it is the second-highest per-year average salary for a fullback in the NFL, behind only Kyle Juszczyk of the San Francisco 49ers, who averages $5.25 million per year. Also signed this offseason was C.J. Ham, who is now up to $3 million per year, but the next-highest is $2.1 million per year.

So, one would think, given that the Steelers are willing to pay Watt so much relative to his position, he’s going to play a lot, right? Well, if you look at his career numbers, he only has 552 total snaps played on offense over the course of his entire four-year career. He has never even played 150 snaps in a single season, offensively. He has more than twice as many career snaps on special teams, and has twice gone over 300 in a single season.

The Los Angeles Chargers never ranked higher than 19th in rushing attempts during Watt’s four seasons there. The Steelers have twice in that same span, as high as 15th in 2017. That was Roosevelt Nix’s career-high in carries with 181. Will Watt play 200 or more snaps on offense? With Ben Roethlisberger coming back with a repaired elbow, are they looking to bring a lot more balance? Or was he only paid what he received because he’s going to be such a big part of special teams?

It’s worth noting that Juszczyk plays a significant amount. His 389 snaps last season were the lowest since his rookie year. He logged 663 snaps in 2018

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