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Why Derek Watt’s contract isn’t as bad as Steelers fans think

Steelers fans love to complain about the money spent at the fullback position.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Baltimore Ravens Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

On the most recent episode of the Steelers Stat Geek podcast, I broke down the numbers for the salary of Steelers special teams captain and fullback Derek Watt. With a salary cap hit for the 2022 season coming in at $4,713,334, many fans have pointed out how there is no offensive player with a salary cap hit higher than Watt on the roster. While this is true, there is also some context which needs to be taken into account before screaming from the rooftops about the awful contract.

First, it should be noted there are two offensive players with a higher salary cap hit than Derek Watt for 2022. The only difference is neither player is on the roster. Both Ben Roethlisberger ($10.34 million) and JuJu Smith-Schuster ($5.6 million) have a bigger dead money cap hit than any offensive player on the Steelers this season. While this doesn’t really impact Watt’s salary cap number for the season, it does add a little bit more context when it comes to offensive spending.

The biggest mistake Steelers fans make is looking at Derek Watt as a fullback. Yes, it is the position he is listed under, as it is how the designations work in the NFL. But if you look at his role and how he is actually used, Derek Watt should be seen first and foremost as the Steelers’ special teams captain.

Only playing 86 offensive snaps during the regular season, Watt saw 332 special teams snaps in 2021. This means that 80% of the time Derek Watt was on the football field for the Steelers, it was playing special teams.

So if Watt should be thought of as the special team captain first, what is the going rate for special teams captains in the NFL?

Looking strictly at the 2021 salary cap hit for the 13 players who were special teams captains for the season, and not specialists (kicker, punter, or long snapper), Derek Watt comes in above average, but not the most expensive.

The average salary cap hit of these 13 players comes in at $2.3 million in 2021. If the two players who were on rookie deals were excluded, the average jumps up to $2.55 million. As for Derek Watt, his 2021 salary cap hit was $2.953 million.

So who were are the special teams captains who had a higher 2021 salary cap hit? There were three of them:

Dennis Gardeck, LB, Arizona: $3.384 million
Matthew Slater, WR, New England: $3.001 million
Jabril Peppers, S, New York Giants: $6.77 million

If looking at these three players, the first one that stands out is Peppers, who rarely played any special team snaps last season, as he landed on injured reserve in Week 7. Linebacker Dennis Gardeck from Arizona had a higher salary cap hit, but played more defensive snaps compared to Watt’s offensive snaps as he had 173 and only 278 special team snaps. The final player, Matthew Slater, only played 16 offensive snaps in 2021 but was a Pro Bowl selection as a special teams player.

If looking for a player who had a near identical salary cap hit in 2021 as Watt, and is known as a special teams player although not a captain, the best example is Buffalo Bills linebacker and former Steelers draft pick Tyler Matakevich. With a 2021 salary cap number of $2.95 million, Matakevich played 43 defensive snaps and 347 special team snaps in 2021.

When putting the numbers in this context, I wouldn’t say the Derek Watt is grossly overpaid, but he also has not been cheap either. Additionally, this is looking strictly at the salary numbers and snaps played as a objective value and not looking at the subjective breakdown of Watt’s play on the field in a special teams capacity.

Getting back to 2022, while it is true Derek Watt has a higher salary cap number then any other player on the offense, it still comes in ninth overall for the Steelers. But out of the more than $4.7 million Watt will be counting this season, only $2.75 million is what he will be paid in 2022. When looking at it in this way, things get a little more cloudy.

If looking at how much players are actually making the season, one can’t simply look at their base salary. While Derek Watt does have a decent base salary this season, the Steelers signed a number of offensive players to new deals this offseason which came with hefty signing bonuses. Honestly, the only way to accurately compare player salaries is to do so by looking at their Average Per Year salary (APY). What APY does is take a player’s total salary and divides by the number of years in order to average out how much they make per season.

Looking at the players under contract with the Steelers for 2022, Derek Watt comes in 19th in APY at $3.25 million. Watt is the eighth offensive player on the list and also comes in behind kicker Chris Boswell. Watt also falls behind several players still on their rookie deals, albeit first-round draft picks. In fact, Watt comes in with an APY just behind Kenny Pickett and Najee Harris. For some context, the five contracts ahead of Watt in APY on the Steelers come in this order:

14. Minkah Fitzpatrick
15. Ahkello Witherspoon
16. Levi Wallace
17. Kenny Pickett
18. Najee Harris
19. Derek Watt

Now that we see who is actually ahead of Derek Watt on this list, the greater context comes when looking who is immediately behind him on this list:

19. Derek Watt
20. Tyson Alualu
21. Marcus Allen
22. Terrell Edmunds
23. Montravius Adams
24. Robert Spillane
25. Joe Haeg
26. Gunner Olszewski
27. Miles Killebrew
28. Arthur Maulet

Looking at this list, with the exception of two players in Tyson Alualu and Terrell Edmunds, who signed very team friendly deals for the Steelers, these names are where I would expect Derek Watt to fall. To group him among these players in terms of salary doesn’t seem that crazy. The only difference is Watt is at the top of this group which is definitely open for debate as to whether or not that is where he would fall.

Additionally, the fact that Derek Watt is 19th in APY also doesn’t mean that he would be expected to be the 19th best player. It is very difficult to compare players on their second NFL contract and beyond with those who are on rookie deals. It makes sense that the majority of the players below those listed above are on rookie deals. Actually, all of the players below Arthur Maulet are either on the first NFL contract, playing under a veteran salary benefit contract, or are fighting to even make the roster. with the Steelers having so many players on a rookie deal filling out the bottom of the list, it doesn’t make the 19th-ranked player look all that impressive.

Although I have supplied the data behind why Derek Watt should be looked at as a special teams captain first, and how his overall contract isn’t as terrible as some make it out to be, there will still be those that won’t care about the numbers and have already decided they hate it and he should be released. It wasn’t Derek Watt’s decision last offseason for the Steelers to restructure his deal to a point where he carries almost $2 million in dead money in the final year of his contract. If it weren’t for that figure, Derek Watt would be sitting just about where it would be reasonably expected for his salary as a player who is a special teams captain and keeps the Steelers from having to fill another roster position in order to carry a fullback.

For a more in-depth breakdown of the numbers as well as a bigger comparison to other special teams captains and their salaries, check out the Steelers Stat Geek podcast below: