Steelers ‘discovering’ if fullback Derek Watt can play larger function on offense this season
For all of the money the Pittsburgh Steelers spent on fullback Derek Watt in free agency, they didn’t get much return on their investment in 2020.
Then again, the Steelers didn’t exactly give Watt a chance to live up to his three-year, $9.75 million contract in his first year with the team.
Watt logged just 52 offensive snaps in 12 games and didn’t receive a single touch in his fullback role. Not one handoff. No pass targets, either.
The only time he essentially got his hands on the football was when he tackled Denver Broncos punter Sam Martin, forcing a fumble that rolled out of the end zone for a safety in Week 2.
If what transpired Monday at Steelers practice is any indication, Watt could fulfill a larger role in the Steelers offense this season. Not only was he used extensively as a blocker in a goal-line drill, he was targeted on a wheel route during a team run session that resulted in a lengthy reception.
“I think we’re discovering that in this process,” coach Mike Tomlin said. “We intend to potentially use that position more than we have in the past – or at least the recent past. The plays he makes and the skill set that he shows will dictate some of that discussion.”
This year, Watt’s $2.953 million salary cap hit is the third-highest of any NFL fullback, and his $2.75 million cash outlay is second. He also has reunited with two of his former coaches. Alfredo Roberts, who is in his first year coaching tight ends, spent 2017-19 coaching running backs with the Los Angeles Chargers when Watt played there in his first four NFL seasons. And first-year offensive coordinator Matt Canada held the same position at Wisconsin in 2012 when Watt was on campus.
Canada historically has emphasized the fullback in his offenses, which could bode well for Watt to receive increased snaps this season.
“I know when he was at Pitt and other places he used my role a good amount,” Watt said. “I’m a little familiar with it, and I’ve got a good feel for it now, so I’m excited to see how it all plays out.”
Watt never played more than 15% of the offensive snaps in a year during his four years with the Chargers. And his career totals there included 19 carries and 13 receptions.
After getting a deal with the Steelers that included a $3.75 million signing bonus, Watt played just 5% of the offensive snaps. He had a game-high 11 in November at Jacksonville, then logged just 10 in the final six games of the regular season.
“It’s about matchups,” he said. “Some schemes work better against certain teams than others. There could be games when I play a ton and others not so much.”
Watt, though, played nearly 50% of all special teams snaps despite being inactive for three games because of a hamstring injury.
“I think when you’re talking about today’s fullback, it starts with special teams because you use a lot of different personnel groups,” Tomlin said. “They don’t play as much as they used to. That’s the hidden value of Derek Watt, and that’s what’s not talked about enough regarding Derek Watt. He’s our fullback and we utilize him and we can talk about whether we choose to throw him the ball or use him on lead blocks, but he’s a core component of our special teams.”
Watt, who is listed at 6-foot-2, 234 pounds, worked with the tight ends during individual blocking drills Monday. It is a role he played sparingly with the Chargers, and he’s open to filling it with the Steelers if it helps him get on the field more often.
“It’s a new offense this year, so we’re still feeling things out,” he said. “We’ll see as we progress. There definitely is a focus to get the tight end involved a little more and I want to show them I’m versatile enough to bring more to the table.”
Watt was lined up in the “F” spot in Canada’s offense on the left side of the line when he broke free down the seam and found himself wide open for a reception that gained about 30 yards.
“If there is a chance to go out for a route, I’m definitely excited” Watt said. “I’m always ready for the ball. Any chance you get to touch the ball is a bonus for me.”
Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe by email at email@example.com or via Twitter .
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