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When the time comes, the Steelers shouldn’t have a problem paying T.J. Watt

With the Steelers most prolific playmaker on his rookie deal, there should be no reason for concern when it comes to making sure Watt remains with the Steelers long term

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest questions of the 2020 off-season is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ability to keep Bud Dupree without breaking the bank. After having a very strong season in the final year of his contract, Dupree is looking to cash in as much as he can. But with only one year out of five of high quality production, giving Dupree an enormous contract may not be in the best interest of the Steelers.

Another issue looming over the situation when it comes to the outside linebacker position is knowing the Steelers will eventually need to extend their 2019 Defensive Player of the Year candidate T.J. Watt. With salary cap space being a premium in 2020, signing Dupree even to the franchise tag seems like a tall task. But will the Steelers have a repeat of the situation when it’s time for Watt to become an unrestricted free agent?

First of all, unless the next season or two brings completely unexpected results, there’s no reason to believe that T.J. Watt would not be a wise investment for the Steelers to break the bank. So the question isn’t if the Steelers should pay him, it’s can they afford his contract? The simple answer is: Yes, when the time comes.

Watt is currently entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract. Being a first-round pick, it will be a no-brainer for the Steelers to exercise the fifth-year option on Watt when the time comes later this year. With the Steelers having Watt locked up for both 2020 and 2021 (assuming there is no work stoppage with the CBA negotiations), Watt will be due to sign a new deal right when Ben Roethlisberger‘s current contract will be coming to an end. With salary cap numbers of over $30 million a season the next two years, Roethlisberger’s salary takes up 16.8% of the salary cap for 2020. Once his contract is off the books, the Steelers should have plenty of room to sign Watt and potentially give him the largest contract of a defensive player in the NFL. If he signs a contract in the typical fashion the Steelers structure things, chances are the first year will have a smaller salary cap number than the following years due to the signing bonus.

But what if Roethlisberger is not done playing after his next contract? Well, if Ben Roethlisberger is still deserving of a $30+ million contract each season beyond 2021, then the Steelers are already in very good shape. Taking his age into account, if Roethlisberger is playing at that high of a level, the Steelers will most likely be having some amazing success with hopefully some nice hardware to go with it. If this is not the case, but yet Roethlisberger still wants to continue to play for the Steelers, he will have to see the writing on the wall and realize his contract would have to be much less than what he has earned over the course of his career.

Even if Roethlisberger were to sign a one-year extension, the Steelers would still have the option of using the franchise tag on T.J. Watt for the 2022 season. In a scenario where Roethlisberger does merely finish out his final contract, the Steelers may use the franchise tag on Watt simply to have more time to sign him to a long-term deal. Regardless, Watt would be a prime player to use the franchise tag. With all things considered, T.J. Watt can be under contract with the Steelers for three seasons at the very least before a long-term deal.

Of course, there could be something crazy that goes on with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement where there’s a change in the franchise tag or things of that nature. Obviously those sort of changes can’t be taken into account at this point. But based on business continuing as usual, T.J. Watt is going to be in black and gold for quite some time.

Another factor in the whole scenario is the Steelers can’t say for sure who will be their quarterback following Ben Roethlisberger. Unless they break from their normal way of business, it will not be a player who is demanding anywhere close to the salary Roethlisberger is currently collecting, therefore the money should be available.

It is interesting how the face of the Steelers’ franchise is changing. As Ben Roethlisberger enters his 17th season, it’s the Steelers defense which is beginning to emerge with T.J. Watt as their superstar. It will only be a matter of a season or two before Watt’s leadership, marketability, and salary all take over from what Roethlisberger‘s once was.