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Contract aside, DE Stephon Tuitt wants to be 'that guy' Steelers need

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers have made a habit of rewarding ascending linemen with big contracts. They gave former first-round picks Cam Heyward and David DeCastro new deals that, combined, could be worth more than $100 million.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt appears to be next on the Steelers' list of future big-time money earners. Even if his numbers don't reach Heyward's $59 million over six years, Tuitt is highly valued at Steelers headquarters.

Tuitt has used questions about his contract to discuss his on-field goals for the coming season. He said last week that he's "probably a couple of steps away from being the No. 1 defensive lineman in the league."

“I don’t care about [the contract updates from my agent]," said Tuitt, who's sitting out organized team activities and minicamp with a finger injury that required surgery. "What I care about is staying in shape and being the best person I can be every day and enjoying what I’m doing. ... It’s just preparing and becoming that guy, the guy the Steelers need me to be and help them get to the Super Bowl.”

Tuitt strikes a confident tone, but he knows he's close to being that guy. Early last season, Tuitt lamented missing a few near sacks that would have ignited the Steelers' defense. While he hasn't had a breakout year on paper (11.5 sacks in three seasons, including four last year), he creates steady pressure, is solid against the run and plays with the proverbial high motor that teams covet.

Late last season, Tuitt took partial command of the defensive line after Heyward was placed on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle.

Signing Tuitt to a long-term contract is part of a summer plan that includes extending the contracts of running back Le'Veon Bell and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva.

Tuitt calls the Steelers' potential investment in him "an honor," but he is prepared for anything that might arise during the negotiation process. He can put a swim move on contract-related expectations by focusing on his place in history.

“I watch film," Tuitt said. "I talk to the older guys like Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel. I want to experience that feeling here. I want to know what that’s like, and I’m glad I have one more year to try to do that with them.”

Key phrase: "One more year."

A 2018 unrestricted free agent, Tuitt is taking his contract status literally -- even if that reality is about to change.