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T.J. Watt, Steelers pushing their negotiations to the brink

Steelers first-round pick Najee Harris drops by to talk about everything from what he felt when he got the call from Pittsburgh and how Marshawn Lynch is helping him through his rookie year in the NFL.

A couple of Pittsburgh’s unofficial rules of contract engagement are making the T.J. Watt negotiations more interesting than they otherwise would be.

First, the Steelers don’t do player contracts once the season begins. Thus, either Watt and the team find a consensus in the coming days or the plug gets pulled and Watt gets paid $10.1 million for 2021, lugging the injury risk through a 17-game regular season.

Second, the Steelers don’t fully guarantee payments beyond the first year of a veteran deal. They’ll give a player a huge signing bonus to account for that, but they don’t agree to guaranteed payments for injury, skill, and cap in the second year and beyond.

Watt, we’re told, wants (and deserves) a huge guarantee, one that stretches beyond 2021. Watt also wants be to the highest paid defensive player in the NFL.

It will be easy to get his new-money average past $27 million per year, especially if he signs a five-year extension with inflated base salaries on the back end. It won’t be easy to satisfy his effort to get full guarantees beyond the first year of the deal.

Setting aside the “why” regarding Pittsburgh’s approach to guarantees in veteran contracts (they possibly don’t like the idea of putting money in escrow, even though the rules have softened a bit), it puts them at a disadvantage. Why would Watt agree to less security than other players get, simply because that’s not the way the Steelers do it? If nearly every other team does, at some point this unofficial approach to paying players will drive a wedge that can’t be rectified.

The “no contracts once the season starts” rule complicates the Watt situation in a different way. He didn’t hold out. He showed up, and they’ve allowed him to not practice or play in the preseason. Since they won’t (unless they break their own rule) do new contracts after the season begins, there’s no benefit to either side to letting him skip games while talks continue. The talks simply won’t continue.

Thus, the time has come for the Steelers to find a way to tactfully tell Watt that it’s time to start earning his $10.1 million, unless he’s willing to accept their best offer. If he’s not, who knows what will happen? If things go haywire, the team may be able to eventually blame their own internal rules for it.