We joked after outside linebacker T.J. Watt signed his massive four-year, $112 million contract extension with the Pittsburgh Steelers that the only person happier than himself about that deal was safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, who is the next player in line to receive a big contract extension. Talking to Pat McAfee earlier today, that may not have been much of a joke.
“You see that they’re taking care of players. And they even did some untraditional things with T.J. I’ve seen that happen, and it definitely puts a smile on my face”, Fitzpatrick said, “puts a smile on other players’ faces, because it’s good when you know that the owners and the guys upstairs are taking care of the players. He was smiling, but I was smiling even bigger”.
For the first time in their history, the Steelers agreed to provide fully-guaranteed salary to Watt in the second and third years of his contract. Outside of rookie first-round contracts, Pittsburgh has never offered salary fully guaranteed in this way before; Ben Roethlisberger received some injury guarantees in his 2019 extension.
Watt’s new extension, which averages $28 million per season in new money, included $80 million in total fully guaranteed, the most in Steelers history, and the most for a defensive player all-time. That included a $35 million signing bonus, as well as base salaries of $20 million and $24 million in the second and third years of the deal, on top of a $1 million base salary for this season.
The front office broke with long-standing precedent to get this deal done, though they did not do anything that has long been the norm for almost every other team in the league, in guaranteeing money beyond the first year of the deal (the New England Patriots did this with at least three mid-level outside free agent signings just this offseason, even guaranteeing most of one player’s third-year salary, as just one example).
Fitzpatrick, of course, is smiling, because he and his agent understand that he may also qualify as a precedent-busting athlete for the front office, whom they will bend their principles for in order to keep around.
Increasingly, players have become more interested in the total guarantees of their contracts rather than the total amounts on paper when first signed. Some have accepted lower APYs in exchange for higher guarantees, which surely Watt did to get his deal done.
Fitzpatrick is not going to get $28 million per season like Watt did, but the price tag for safeties is certainly rising. Most recently, Seattle Seahawks safety Jamal Adams signed a deal that averages $17.5 million per season, though it only included $21 million out of a total value of $70 million guaranteed at signing.
Could Fitzpatrick become the first safety to hit $20 million per season? With a salary cap that could expand significantly in 2022, it’s certainly possible provided that he turns in another All-Pro season. I would also expect him to get year-two guarantees, though I think third-year guarantees are much less likely. But he now knows the chances are much better than they were a few weeks ago.