NFL News & Analysis

Pittsburgh Steelers sign edge defender T.J. Watt to a four-year, $112 million extension

With just days to go before the start of the 2021 NFL season, the Pittsburgh Steelers have signed star edge defender T.J. Watt to a four-year, $112 million contract.

Watt came in at No. 2 on PFF's preseason edge defender rankings and No. 11 on the recent PFF50. He was drafted by the Steelers with the 30th overall pick of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Watt leads all edge defenders in NFL sacks (29.5) and quarterback hits (46) since 2019, falling just short of Shaquil Barrett in total pressures. He turned in a 91.3 PFF grade in 2019 and a 91.6 grade in 2020.

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Watt is not just a pass-rushing specialist. He’s elite in every facet of play, underscored by his 12 batted passes and three interceptions since 2019, both tops at the position.

Simply put, the Steelers' star deserved to become the highest-paid non-quarterback in the NFL after a remarkable first four years in the league. A late first-round pick in 2017 due to concerns about his size, he has lived up to the Watt name and then some, no easy task considering the standard set by his older brother, Arizona Cardinals edge defender J.J. Watt.


A threat against right tackles: Since 2017, no edge defender in the NFL has earned a higher pass-rush grade from the left side of the defensive line (92.0).

Unmatched on the outside: Watt's burst and ability to bend around tackles have set him apart. His 28.5 NFL sacks using an outside pass-rush move are the most in the league over the last four years.

Highest pass-rush win rates 2018-2020 (edge defenders, min. 200 snaps)
Rank Player Pass-rush win rate
1 Joey Bosa 22.7%
2 Cameron Wake 21.5%
3 Myles Garrett 21.0%
4 T.J. Watt 20.0%
5 Jerry Hughes 19.9%

A boost against the run: Watt has tallied 103 defensive stops against the run since 2017, leading all edge rushers over that span.

Click here to view T.J. Watt's career in PFF Premium Stats…


Defense doesn't win championships: Pittsburgh locked up the best player on a defense that allowed the second-fewest expected points added (EPA) per play last year. Still, a high-quality defense only gets a team so far in today's NFL, which is why the Steelers sit 13th overall in PFF's power ratings.

Fade the Steelers: Pittsburgh has the most difficult strength of schedule in the NFL, which is yet another reason to fade Big Ben & Co. The Steelers' 8.5-game win total offers a plus price on the under. Our simulation has them finishing with 7.7, so laying some money at the +115 price is a worthy proposition before Week 1. PFF's Betting Futures Tool reveals betting opportunities within season win total and future markets.

Bet the under in Week 1: The Steelers' fourth-ranked defense will have their hands full against a Josh Allen-led offense that led the NFL in passing percentage in neutral game situations. The 48.5 total appears high, based on PFF Greenline‘s projections, with Watt and the Steelers defense doing enough to slow down the Bills offense for this game to go under. PFF Greenline uses exclusive game and player data to make projections on NFL game spreads, moneyline, and over/under.

PFF's 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit includes links to every article, tool and chart to best prepare you for your fantasy football draft. This will be updated regularly between now and Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season.


Because the Steelers are very particular about how they structure contracts, the two sides went back and forth on fully guaranteeing money beyond the first year of the deal in order to get the guarantees in line with top-paid edge defenders such as Joey Bosa and Myles Garrett. In the end, Watt won that battle and gets $80 million fully guaranteed at signing, which tops Bosa's record of $78 million.

Pittsburgh has other contract principles: They generally never extend a player with more than one year remaining and don’t negotiate in-season. For that reason, it’s unlikely safety Minkah Fitzpatrick will also cash in before Week 1. With another season playing behind Watt and this loaded Steelers front, Fitzpatrick could push to become the highest-paid safety in the NFL in 2022.

The Steelers defensive line is the priciest in the NFL, as it now features Watt at $28.003 million per year in addition to interior defenders Cameron Heyward ($16.4 million per year) and Stephon Tuitt ($12 million per year).

Pittsburgh obviously foresaw an extension with Watt this offseason and had no choice but to let 2015 first-round edge defender Bud Dupree depart for the Tennessee Titans in free agency, where he signed a deal worth $16.5M per year even while rehabbing from a torn ACL.


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