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Steelers Set Standard for Player Participation During Contract Negotiations



Steelers Minkah Fitzpatrick Mike Tomlin

PITTSBURGH — In the last 10 months, the Pittsburgh Steelers have handed out a lot of money to defensive players with T.J. Watt cashing in on a $112 million contract to be the NFL’s highest paid outside linebacker in September and Minkah Fitzpatrick landing a new deal as the top-paid safety in the league this week.

But the Steelers — or at least the Steelers players — have also accomplished something else throughout those two processes. They’ve established a new standard of behavior for a player that is seeking a new contract.

It was a called a hold in when Watt did it last year. He attended all team meetings and practices, dressed fully, stretched, participated in individual drills and then chose to sit out any team on contact periods of practice.

Fitzpatrick did the same thing this spring at the Steelers’ mandatory minicamp. He was there all three days, in uniform, in meeting, taking part in drills. During 11 on 11 and 7 on 7 team periods, he stood in the back of the formation and gave tips and advice to his other defenders.

Watt is one thing. He’s probably the second-best defensive player alive. Exceptions are made for players like that.

Fitzpatrick’s new deal is an order of magnitude less important than Watt’s was, but he followed the same blueprint and standard that Watt did. It’s clear this wasn’t a one-off. This is something that the Steelers and the team’s player seem to have settled on as an appropriate way to handle the delicate business of a player being part of the team, and also wanting to protect his own future interests until a deal is done.

“I could have been at home in Florida, training with my family,” Fitzpatrick said at his post-signing press conference. “But I really wanted to come up here and show my teammates that I’m still focused on winning. I’m still focused on us. I’m still focused on our development and being present in it. I’m a real hands-on guy.”

The Steelers have always been an organization that demands the team be put first. It seems that they’ve come up with a way that has done that, while also allaying players fears about an injury wrecking their contract negotiations.

It also gives younger Steelers an opportunity to work with the first team, while having someone like Fitzpatrick coach them up. New Steelers safety Damontea Kazee go to do Fitzpatrick’s job on the field and then immediately pick his brain about how he did. 

“I know what the standard is and I know how older guys like Cam [Heyward] and T.J. and Coach [Tomlin] hold it,” Fitzpatrick said. “I feel like I’m a leader in that secondary and I wanted to start building that standard now. Even though I wasn’t out there practicing, I can still watch, still coach, still talk and break down film with guys. I just wanted to let the guys know that this is important to me. Even though I was going through this contract situation, the team was first to me.”

In a hold out, a player’s desire to be a part of the team, around the game, and with his guys in the locker room could be a negative. It gives the team leverage to want to get the player to end the hold out as quickly as possible.

But in football, those traits are all positive, and this solution let Fitzpatrick be who is he is while negotiating a new deal.

“It’s hard for me just to be away from the game,” he said. “I love this game. It’s a big part of who I am.”

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