Six days prior to the Pittsburgh Steelers regular-season opener, T.J. Watt’s practice regimen remained the same as it had for the first six weeks of training camp. That would suggest his status for Sunday’s game at the Buffalo Bills is not certain.
Watt’s practice status and participation Monday was status quo, a Steelers spokesman confirmed. Watt regularly has taken part in stretches and individual drills over the past month and a half but has not joined his teammates in 11-on-11 or 7-on-7 play.
Watt is entering the option year of his contract and is eligible for a mega extension he and the Steelers have been in negotiations for in recent months. Defensive coordinator Keith Butler last month confirmed Watt’s lack of participation in full practices was related to the contract situation, and coach Mike Tomlin has signified Watt has his blessing.
The Steelers said Tomlin would address Watt during his weekly news conference Tuesday.
Steelers organizational policy long has been they do not negotiate contracts once the season kicks off, leaving this weekend as a deadline. Neither Watt nor Tomlin has indicated what will happen if a contract is not agreed to in time. Watt has not spoken publicly since the first practice of training camp July 22.
Typically, Tomlin’s unofficial policy has been that a player who does not practice Friday does not play in a Sunday game. Monday’s practice was something of a “bonus” session; the regular in-season work week schedule is practices Wednesday through Friday.
In the past, players such as Troy Polamalu, Stephon Tuitt and Cortez Allen signed extensions on the eve of the season opener. Each of them, however, practiced fully throughout training camp. Several others – Joe Haden and David DeCastro among them – agreed to deals within a week of the regular season.
The only contract dispute in recent decades that led to missed regular-season games was running back Le’Veon Bell, who sat out the 2018 season after refusing to sign the franchise-tag tender for that year. Bell, though, was not under contract at the time. Barring an extension, Watt is obligated to play 2021 under the terms of his rookie contract that included a $10.09 million option for this season that the Steelers executed in the spring of 2020.
Labor Day traditionally has been viewed as the start of the NFL’s “regular season” practice schedule. In 2017, for example, Bell to much fanfare reported to the team for the first time that day after he had skipped training camp. The following year, Bell’s teammates openly opined they were disappointed in Bell for not showing up that day.
Watt, though, has not missed a single practice among the more than two dozen the Steelers have held since camp opened July 22. He has not been spotted as missing from the field throughout the entirety of camp and the preseason, and Watt regularly has run sprints, done work with other equipment and even repped passrushing drills with team staff or other players who are out of team drills because of injury.
Watt’s extension is expected to value more than $100 million over at least four seasons, making him the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player and highest-paid player in Steelers history. The extent of the guaranteed money is a likely sticking point.
An outside linebacker, Watt has been a finalist for the NFL’s defensive player of the year award each of the past two seasons.
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .