Over the last eight weeks, our Steelers Vertex series has been focusing on players going into the 2021 season where the Steelers need to do something in regards to their contract. Focusing on the top salary cap numbers, all eight breakdowns can be seen at the bottom of this article.
As an extra piece, we decided to look at the value of fullback Derek Watt. With the Steelers already restructuring his contract for 2021, there isn’t really any question as to Watt’s status for the coming season. Regardless, Watt is a player we would like to take a look at in regards to both his stats and his film to see the value he is bringing to the Steelers.
Let’s get a quick reminder of where this nerdiness is coming from.
Vertex- a single point where two or more lines cross.
Sometimes to make a great point, it takes two different systems of analysis to come together and build off each other in order to drawl a proper conclusion. In this case, the two methods are statistical analysis and film breakdown. Enter Dave Schofield (the stat geek) and Geoffrey Benedict (the film guru) to come together to prove a single point based on our two lines of thinking.
Here comes the breakdown from two different lines of analysis.
The Stats Line:
When it come to the stats for Derek Watt, there’s not a lot to talk about. Watt only played 52 offensive snaps during the regular season and got zero carries and zero targets in the Steelers offense. In their single playoff game, Watt played two offensive snaps and was handed the ball on both plays. In his two carriers, Watt totaled 2 yards.
The more important stats when it comes to Derek Watt is his contributions on special teams. With eight regular season tackles and one in the playoffs, Watt played 213 special team snaps in his 12 regular-season games. Unfortunately, one of the biggest things Derek Watt brought to the table for the Steelers when they signed him in the 2020 offseason was he had yet to miss an NFL game. With the Steelers dealing with fullback unavailability in 2019, the fact Watt missed four games in 2020 did not help.
When it comes to his contract, Derek Watt already restructured his deal for the 2021 season in order to save the Steelers $880k. By doing so, Watt’s salary cap number comes in at under $3 million this season but jumps up to over $4.7 million in 2022. Had the Steelers simply released Watt rather than restructure him, it would have only saved them a little more than $27k over what they saved to restructure him. Since the Steelers had a portion of Watt’s salary going towards the cap, it made sense to do the restructure and retain him.
As for the value Derek Watt brings to the Steelers, the biggest mistake fans are making is looking as him as a fullback. Yes, he plays fullback. But as you can see, Watt played four times as many special team’s snaps then he did offensive snaps for the Steelers. Watt is truly a special teams player that brings value to another position on the field. His $3.25 million per season deal with the Steelers is just about the same as the $3.575 million per season deal Tyler Matakevich signed with the Buffalo Bills last offseason. When looking at these players strictly as special teams players who could add something at their position group if needed, it gives an entirely different perspective on the contract.
Enough about the numbers, let’s see how Derek Watt’s play on the field stacked up.
The Film Line:
Derek Watt is a top tier special teams player. He could very easily be the Steelers special teams captain in 2020 if they don’t re-sign Jordan Dangerfield. But it is his ability on offense that makes him valuable beyond his salary.
It isn’t coincidence that the Steelers signed Derek Watt the same year they brought in Matt Canada. The Steelers carry a fullback no matter how little they use the position, and Derek Watt brings versatility as a fullback. That’s what I want to show here.
Week 1, 4th quarter, 1:48. Derek Watt is the fullback.
Watt does a great job on this run. Watch the linebacker to the bottom of the screen, he is in position to stop this run when Derek Watt meets him, helping Eric Ebron’s block and then dealing with the safety. This run is likely a 2-3 yard run without Watt’s blocks here, instead it’s a 7 yard run with the Steelers trying to close out the game.
Week 2, 4th quarter, 1:47. Derek Watt is the H-Back to the right side of the screen.
A nice lead block on the longest run from a Steeler in 2020. But my favorite part is Watt’s left arm. As he heads outside his left arm is down and waving, telling Conner to stay inside him, before he takes out the outside defender. Conner stays inside, cuts back and it’s a foot race for another 50 yards. Fullbacks need to see multiple run lanes to really shine like this, and Derek Watt is that kind of fullback.
Through two weeks, Derek Watt’s play was limited to the end of the 4th quarter when the Steelers were trying to run the clock out. The fact that they ran the clock out so well gained him some play time earlier in the game in Week 3.
Week 3, 1st quarter, 12:34. Derek Watt is the inside player in the bunch to the left side of the screen.
A nice designed cutback run and Derek Watt seals his brother J.J. Watt out of the play. The misdirection sets it up, Derek Watt just has to keep J.J. Watt from getting back into the play, and the Steelers neutralize one of the better run defending defensive ends in the NFL with a fullback while running to his side.
Derek Watt isn’t going to block his brother successfully in many circumstances, but when the scheme does a good bit of the work, he can finish the job.
Week 3, 1st quarter, 5:17. Derek Watt is the fullback, right behind Ben Roethlisberger.
This play helps show why Derek Watt didn’t get a lot of play time at fullback, because while he makes a really nice block on the edge defender, the defensive end beats Matt Feiler and Alejandro Villanueva’s combo block and #55 is free to tackle James Conner after a one yard gain. With an offensive line that isn’t great at run blocking, putting more blockers and more people in the box to block is a bad idea. The fewer bodies in the box, the more a running back can make up for a missed block, the more congested the box is, the harder it is to overcome one mistake.
Watt was injured in Week 3, and would miss time, returning after teams had figured out the run game and the Steelers were spreading the field more than ever, leaving few opportunities for Derek Watt.
Week 13, 2nd quarter, 7:01. Derek Watt is the wingback to the right side of the screen.
A great play design, you can see how the jet sweep motion pulls #31 to the right, and how Benny Snell’s route pulls #51 to the left. Derek Watt is wide open, and there is a clean lane to get him the ball. Ben Roethlisberger instead tries to throw over Montez Sweat and the ball is batted incomplete. This is a Matt Canada play, and the Steelers added more and more of Canada’s offense over the course of the season. Ben Roethlisberger struggled to execute them, and chances were lost. This drive ended with the Washington Football Team holding on 4th down, the Steelers got no points on this drive, and lost the game by 6 points.
Wild Card game, 1st quarter, 11:30. Derek Watt motions to be the fullback.
Another Canada play, and you can see how the motion clears space for Watt to pick up 2 yards and convert on third down. Look at the linebacker in the middle to start, he moves to the side with all the motion, and Watt dives to the middle, right where that linebacker was.
Derek Watt isn’t a player that will beat coverage, break tackles, or outrun anyone on offense. He is a smart player who plays hard and can take advantage when teams don’t consider him a threat. With top tier special teams play and value in the exact type of offense Matt Canada runs, Derek Watt is a bargain for his pay grade.
The biggest issue with the fan base when it comes to Derek Watt is failing to realize he brings two big things to the table. If looking at him as just a special teams player, or just a fullback, fans would be missing half the picture at least.
Seeing how Derek watt was utilized in the running game when he actually saw the field should give Steelers fans a bit of encouragement for the 2021 season. With Matt Canada taking over the offense, using the fullback might not be done all the time but should at least be done more efficiently. A year in Canada’s offense should give the Steelers a much better picture of what Watt brings to the offense to go along with his special teams play.
Past Vertex breakdowns: