Pittsburgh Steelers expect LB T.J. Watt to practice in full, be available for opener

PITTSBURGH -- For the first time this season, Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt is expected to fully participate in practice. And, though the Steelers haven't yet finalized a deal with the All-Pro linebacker, coach Mike Tomlin is "optimistic" one will get done.

Tomlin said he anticipates Watt being a full participant beginning with Wednesday afternoon's practice.

"I remain optimistic that something is going to get done from a deal perspective," Tomlin said Tuesday. "That aside, you know, I'm expecting him to work tomorrow. I'm proceeding with the assumption that he's going to work tomorrow. You know, that's kind of the approach that I'm taking."

Watt, who is entering the final year of his contract, has attended every practice through the preseason but only participated in the individual portions and hasn't worked in a team setting.

The Steelers have long had a practice-to-play policy, but Tomlin declined to say how much practice was needed for Watt to be available for Sunday's season opener in Buffalo.

"I hadn't thought a lot about a tipping point, if you will, in terms of participation," Tomlin said. "Like I mentioned earlier, like the rest of our organization, I've been optimistic about this process run its course.

"And so because of that optimism, I'm anticipating quality play for him this weekend and beyond."

The Steelers also have a long-standing tradition of not negotiating player contracts during the season. A year ago, the Steelers signed Cameron Heyward to an extension on the Monday of Week 1.

A policy likely complicating Watt's expected record-setting deal is the organization's history of not guaranteeing money beyond the signing bonus. Previously, the most money the Steelers guaranteed as a signing bonus was Ben Roethlisberger's $37.5 million in his April 2019 extension.

Tomlin said Watt's unique physical abilities can enable him to be game-ready without a full training camp or preseason under the belts.

"One thing I'm not going to do is assume that he's regular or normal," Tomlin said. "I think guys that are in the position that he's in, they're in those positions because of their unique talents and skill set and will."

He compared Watt's situation and abilities to Aaron Donald and his 2018 holdout, when he worked out in Pittsburgh rather than joining the Rams for training camp as he sought his own record-setting deal.

"I was not surprised when he got to L.A. and performed immediately to an Aaron Donald standard," Tomlin said. "I think guys like those guys routinely do what others can't. And so I kind of have that perspective on his readiness and the anticipated quality of his play.

"I've just been in this game so long at this level, I'm so used to seeing uniquely talented people rise up in the face of adversity or circumstance and exceed it. I'd probably be lying if I told you I would be surprised if [Watt] didn't perform and perform well."