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Rookie contract hero: T.J. Watt is the thin strand holding the Steelers’ defense together

When Watt doesn’t get pressure, the Steelers lose. Seems simple enough.

Atlanta Falcons v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Joe Sargent/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Steelers have expended loads of draft capital to build a defense that harkened back to the Steel Curtain era of the 1970s. Since 2013, every one of the team’s first-round draft picks has been a defensive player. Between 2014 and 2017, nine of their 13 Day 1 or Day 2 selections were defenders.

It was a common sense strategy that aimed to complement an already-explosive offense. And in 2017 it finally paid off. Pittsburgh emerged as a top-five defense in the midst of a 13-win season. But its entry to the league’s elite wouldn’t last, all thanks to an unexpected injury.

Through their first 12 games of ‘17, the Steelers allowed 24 points or more just twice. Then Ryan Shazier suffered a career-threatening spinal injury in Week 13, robbing Pittsburgh of its linchpin in the middle of the field. Without their star setting the tone and barking out plays at inside linebacker, the Steelers began to fade. Opponents hit 24 points or more in four of the team’s last five games — including a 45-42 loss to the Jaguars in the Divisional Round of the postseason.

Those struggles have carried over into 2018 as Shazier continues his rehab, but there’s another former first-round pick who’s put himself in position to be the rising tide that lifts the entire Pittsburgh defense: T.J. Watt.

Watt’s second season as a pro has built off a solid rookie campaign. Through five games, he’s tied for the league lead in sacks, alongside his brother J.J. and and Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins.

Holding steady alongside a three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year and a four-time All-Pro is outstanding company to keep. But Watt’s been quiet in the Steelers’ losses this fall. So the question remains: can Watt be the consistent force they need to string together a disheveled defense in 2018?

The Steelers’ playoff hopes rely on Watt becoming a consistent threat

Pittsburgh has gotten off to an unimpressive start, with the tumult of Le’Veon Bell’s holdout spilling into a season that’s seen the club crumble against AFC contenders like the Chiefs and Ravens through five weeks. Bell’s absence has hurt — James Conner, at his best, can provide 80 percent of what Bell does at a fraction of the cost but is only 2 of 5 when it comes to getting there — but the defense is a major proponent of this sluggish start.

And as Watt goes, so does the Pittsburgh defense.

I won’t waste time breaking down the second-year player’s specific skill set here; Stephen White already did one hell of a job with that this week. Let’s instead focus on his role — and his value — to a team that’s locked into a tougher fight for the AFC North crown than it originally envisioned.

The straight-up numbers are impressive. Watt’s on pace for 19 sacks, 29 QB hits, 90 tackles, three forced fumbles, and 22 tackles for loss. But his rising statistics aren’t just a product of his second-year leap. Watt is seeing more playing time than ever before, bumping his snap count up from 74 percent to more than 88 in 2018. That means the Steelers aren’t just confident in his pass rushing, but also his ability to shed blockers on rushing plays and hold his own when called on in pass coverage.

His biggest value comes as a pocket-collapsing agent of chaos. His ability to create pressure and either drag down quarterbacks or force hurried throws is the balm that the Steelers have used to soothe an increasingly-burned secondary.

Losing Shazier’s sideline-to-sideline coverage in the middle of the field has hurt the team. Linebackers Vince Williams and Jon Bostic struggle to stay with receivers and tight ends in the middle of the field. Behind them, increased instability has led to continuity problems and poor play in the defensive backfield. Only safety Sean Davis has remained a constant among the team’s starting defensive backs so far. Joe Haden’s playmaking days appear to be in his rear view — after making one interception every four starts or so as a Brown, he’s had just one in 15 games as a Steeler.

Next to Davis, rookie Terrell Edmunds has experienced some growing pains (and a calf injury). Morgan Burnett, the veteran hand supposed to ease his transition from Virginia Tech, hasn’t seen the field since Week 2 due to a groin injury. Artie Burns got himself benched in Week 3, which is not what the Steelers were hoping for when they made him a first-round pick back in 2016. His playmaking numbers — interceptions and passes defended — are both way below his career averages.

When Watt doesn’t get through to the backfield and opposing quarterbacks have time to exploit those inconsistencies, Pittsburgh suffers. He had only two tackles and one QB hit in Week 2 against the Chiefs, and that allowed Patrick Mahomes to throw six touchdown passes in his third career start. He had four tackles and two pressures against the Buccaneers in a game where the Steelers gave up 400-plus passing yards to Ryan Fitzpatrick. He didn’t touch Joe Flacco at all in Week 4 and wound up surrendering 363 yards and two touchdowns to a quarterback who was 2017’s least efficient starter.

It’s no coincidence Pittsburgh is 2-0-1 when he gets two or more QB pressures in a game and 0-2 when he doesn’t. In the Steelers’ non-losses, he’s racked up six sacks, seven pressures, one forced fumble, and 22 tackles.

When Watt’s on, the rest of his defensive front benefits from the double teams he commands. That creates space for Cameron Heyward and Bud Dupree — the latter Watt’s bookend on the right side — to thrive. Together they’ve combined for 5.5 sacks and 12 QB hits this fall; only one of those sacks and three of those pressures came in games where Watt struggled in a Steeler defeat.

What’s Watt going to cost the Steelers in 2021?

As a former first-round pick, Watt’s locked in with Pittsburgh through 2020 and has an escalating team option for 2021 at $9.2 million. If he keeps up this level of play, he’ll be a no-brainer bargain at that number. The question is whether the Steelers will sign him to a long-term, big-money contract extension before then.

The Steelers have traditionally avoided market-resetting contracts, though they’ve come through with big-money deals when it comes to premier talent — Bell notwithstanding. Antonio Brown signed two different upper-tier contracts before he could head into the final year of previous deals with the team. More importantly, for this comparison at least, Cameron Heyward inked a $59.2 million deal before the team-option fifth year of his rookie contract could kick in.

Heyward’s deal made him the league’s third-highest-paid defensive end when he signed the offer in 2015, but a meager $15 million in guarantees ranked just 21st among his peers. That’s not uncommon in Pittsburgh. Brown’s latest deal is worth up to $68 million over four years, but only $19 million of that is guaranteed. Haden’s three-year, $27 million deal after his departure from Cleveland locked in only $5.75 million. Even Ben Roethlisberger’s most recent $87.4 million extension guarantees him only $31 million (all via signing bonus).

Any high-performing Steeler can expect between 25 and 35 percent of their total contract in guaranteed cash. Comparatively, more than $50 million of J.J. Watt’s $100 million deal is locked in with Houston. Calais Campbell’s $60 million deal with Jacksonville has $30 million in guarantees. Cameron Jordan earned more than $33 million in absolute cash as part of his $55 million extension with New Orleans.

That’s not great for T.J. Watt, though Pittsburgh’s incentive-laden contracts and the often-onerous dead cap hits built into them means he’ll almost certainly earn significantly more than his downside guarantee. Assuming he can remain a double-digit sack threat from season to season, Watt will get paid a premium thanks to his pass rushing abilities.

T.J. isn’t his brother. J.J. At 6’5 and 288 pounds, J.J. is able to create a devastating pass rush either at defensive end or defensive tackle, making him a unicorn among defenders. T.J. fits into a much more common mold — a 3-4 outside linebacker who can move to the line of scrimmage as a end, but who is best suited as a devastating presence from the second level.

The good news for the younger Watt is those guys still get paid. Outside linebackers with 15 sack potential are typically well rewarded, and after Khalil Mack’s record $141 million (with $90 million guaranteed), Watt is looking at a possible nine-figure deal come 2021. Even if his pace slows as opposing offenses adjust to his presence, a handful of 10-12 sack seasons where he consistently commands double teams could lead Watt and the Steelers to something in the realm of a six-year, $126 million deal with $35 to $40 million guaranteed — depending on how the market inflates in the two coming offseasons before then. If he falls off his current pace — let’s say down to the seven to nine sacks per year range — he’d be looking at something more in the $15 million/year range in ‘21.

That’s a deal Pittsburgh could afford if the Roethlisberger era comes to a close sometime in the next two seasons. Breaking in a young passer on a rookie contract would create the savings to dole out big money to the younger Watt without sacrificing an unforgivable amount of cap space. Plus, the club isn’t exactly loaded with big contracts for 2021 anyway — only Brown, Stephon Tuitt, and David DeCastro are currently scheduled to make eight-figure salaries three seasons from now.

Watt would be an expensive luxury for the Steelers, but pass rushers are the second-most valuable position in the game, behind quarterbacks. If he can keep this pace — no small feat — he’ll be worth it, especially if 2018’s relationship between his pressure and Pittsburgh wins holds true.

Other rookie contract studs who upped their value in Week 5:

Matt Milano, LB, Bills (10 tackles in 13-12 win vs. Titans)

Baker Mayfield, QB, Browns (343 passing yards in 12-9 win vs. Ravens)

Robby Anderson, WR, Jets (Three rec, 123 yards, two TDs in 34-16 win vs. Broncos)

Leonard Williams, DL, Jets (two sacks, three QB hits in 34-16 win vs. Broncos)

James Conner, RB, Steelers (185 total yards, two TDs vs. Falcons)

Previously in rookie contract heroes:

Week 1: Michael Thomas

Week 2: Matt Breida

Week 3: Myles Garrett

Week 4: Patrick Mahomes II, Tyreek Hill, and Kareem Hunt