As of Tuesday, Aug. 10, T.J. Watt had not participated in any of the hitting and/or team drills during this training camp. On Aug. 7, defensive coordinator Keith Butler was asked about Watt not taking part in those aspects of camp, and he said, "That's none of my business," said Butler. "I hope he signs a contract, and let's get it done. When he gets that done, we'll talk about that."
A first-round draft pick in 2017, Watt is entering the option year of the contract he signed as a rookie, and Steelers President Art Rooney II said recently he would like to get a long-term extension done with Watt before the start of the upcoming regular season.
With those negotiations ongoing, Watt has been at Heinz Field during training camp, where he attends meetings and does conditioning work throughout the day. He also stands among his teammates during competitive drills, but he has not taken part in any to this point.
"Not unique at all really," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his weekly news conference about whether what Watt is doing is a unique circumstance. "You know, that negotiation process is going to run its course. Some run their courses faster than others. If I remember correctly, Cam Heyward had less than 100 percent participation when he was in a similar circumstance a short time ago. I like to focus my energies on the guys who are working, and I'm less concerned about the guys who aren't, whether it's contractually related or injury related. At this time of the year, I'm all eyes on the guys who are working, and one man's misfortune or inconvenience is an opportunity for another."
In the option year of his rookie contract, Watt is scheduled to earn $10.09 million for the 2021 season if an extension does not happen before the regular season opener on Sept. 12 in Buffalo against the Bills. The Steelers do not negotiate contract extensions once the regular season begins.
"I'm not into the hypotheticals," said Tomlin when asked what might happen if Watt doesn't have a new contract by the time the regular season opens. "You know, we'll deal with today, and then we'll deal with tomorrow, tomorrow. You can talk all day about hypotheticals relative to that issue and others."
Instead, Tomlin prefers to focus on making best use of the time he has.
"We got plenty of days ahead," said Tomlin, "particularly in circumstances where guys are veterans and they know what they're doing. Often times, you're thinning the herd and getting more exposure to others. For instance, I'm excited about the exposure I've been able to get to Melvin Ingram because T.J. has not been participating. Melvin has had an opportunity to work with the first group and really gain cohesion with some of those guys."
Watt has ended each of the previous two regular seasons having been voted first-team All-Pro, and he has a combined 29.5 sacks, 77 hits on the quarterback, 15 passes defensed, 10 forced fumbles, and 23 tackles for loss during those seasons. He was third in Defensive Player of the Year voting in 2019, and second in 2020.
"The business end is going to run its course," said Tomlin. "T.J. is highly conditioned; our strength staff is working with him; he's getting in good work days; and the process is running its course. In the meanwhile, I'm focused on the guys who are working and their level of productivity and what type of days they've been having."
With no Watt, outside linebackers such as Melvin Ingram, Alex Highsmith, Cassius Marsh, and Quincy Roche have handled a good number of the repetitions . In fact, both Highsmith and Ingram have spent some time on both ends of the line of scrimmage.
"I just think flexibility helps us, particularly when you're playing with a guy like T.J.," said Tomlin. "When you fast-forward and you have all three guys (Watt, Alex Highsmith, and Melvin Ingram), everybody needs to be versatile for a lot of reasons. T.J. attracts a lot of attention. Moving him around means you gotta move around the people who play with him, and so that collective versatility within that group is required."