Watt, ‘worth every penny,’ returns to practice for Steelers

PITTSBURGH (AP) — T.J. Watt’s contract negotiations with the Pittsburgh Steelers have dragged on to the point of distraction as the season opener in Buffalo looms on Sunday.

Ben Roethlisberger has some advice on how the organization can make it all go away: pay the All-Pro outside linebacker “whatever the heck he wants.”

While Watt practiced in pads with his teammates on Wednesday for the first time since the end of last season, Roethlisberger urged the Steelers to do whatever it takes to lock Watt up long term before an unofficial deadline passes this weekend.

“One of the reasons I took less money was for guys like him to get paid,” said Roethlisberger, who r enegotiated his contract in March to lessen his salary cap hit for 2021.

“And he needs to get paid. He deserves every penny that he wants and asks for. T.J. Watt is that guy who should get whatever he wants.”

Watt, a three-time Pro Bowler, is in the final season of the deal he signed after the Steelers selected him with the 30th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He’s become one of the most dominant edge rushers in the league and his 49 1/2 sacks through four seasons is the sixth-highest total by any player during the first four years of his career.

Pittsburgh typically likes to extend franchise cornerstones before they begin the final year of their deals. The team, however, also does not negotiate once the season begins. Talks between Watt and the Steelers have been ongoing for months, though what looked like a somewhat easy sprint to the finish has become a slog instead.

Watt has been a regular at the team facility through it all, though he has opted to work out on his own during 11-on-11 drills all training camp. That changed on Wednesday when he sprinted out with the first-team defense while testing a new-look offensive line that includes rookie center Kendrick Green.

“You feel his presence a little bit more,” Green said of Watt. “He plays hard. That’s my first time going against him. He runs to the ball. I’m excited.”

Coach Mike Tomlin reiterated he is planning as if Watt will be available when Pittsburgh faces an early litmus test while facing the defending AFC East champion Bills. Tomlin was impressed with what he saw on Wednesday, though he made it a point to note Watt’s been an active participant in every portion of training camp outside of full-contact 11-on-11.

“He’s a smart guy,” Tomlin said. “He can learn from watching others and it’s evident in watching him work.”

Though there is no evidence Watt would sit out if a deal isn’t reached by Sunday’s kickoff, Roethlisberger is as eager as anyone outside of Watt to put the situation in the rearview mirror.

Pittsburgh’s best chance to maximize the closing window on Roethlisberger’s career is with Watt on the field wreaking his own unique brand of havoc.

To that end, Roethlisberger believes the Steelers should do whatever it takes to secure the player Roethlisberger considers possibly one of the best in the league at any position.

“He’s (the) Defensive Player of the Year, he is,” said Roethlisberger of Watt, who was runner-up for the award last season to Los Angeles Rams star Aaron Donald.

“Everyone in this locker room understands and knows that. He should understand and know that. The problem is when you negotiate and do contracts, it’s not always two-sided. When the bosses or the higher-ups are in charge, there’s only so much you can do.”

With the salary cap expecting to go up in 2022, Watt figures to land a deal north — perhaps far north — of the six-year, $125-million contract Donald landed in 2018 after enduring his own protracted negotiations with the Rams. The issue could be guaranteed money, though Pittsburgh has enough salary cap space in 2022 and beyond to spread out it out.

“Everyone knows how badly he wants to be out there,” Roethlisberger said “The guy was here every single day when he probably didn’t need to be, working, busting his butt. He should get taken care of.”

Things have changed a bit on Pittsburgh’s defense since the previous time Watt was a full-go, including the arrival of Watt’s former Wisconsin teammate Joe Schobert. The Steelers acquired the inside linebacker from Jacksonville last month and he figures to start next to Watt in Buffalo, just like old times.

The two still occasionally train together in the offseason. So the explosiveness Watt showed in his first true day back was hardly a surprise.

“He takes his job extremely seriously,” Schobert said. “It doesn’t matter, wherever you want to play. Put him in a parking lot, whatever, he’s going to be ready to play a football game.”

NOTES: Green (thumb) was limited in practice on Wednesday. … OLB Alex Highsmith (groin) was also limited. … DT Tyson Alualu (elbow) did not participate.

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