HOUSTON – The money always matters. It's the most clear-cut and tangible sign of NFL respect. Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt knows it. He'll even say it, albeit far more gingerly than anything else he does in football.
Over the past month, Watt watched silently as a select few members of his disgustingly loaded 2011 NFL draft class have bathed in lucrative contract extensions. Two pulled it off despite two years remaining on their rookie deals: Cardinals cornerback Patrick Peterson (five years, $70 million) and Cowboys offensive tackle Tyron Smith (eight years, $98 million). Two quarterbacks with a single year left on their deals (San Francisco's Colin Kaepernick and Cincinnati's Andy Dalton) each reeled in six-year deals worth $126 and $115 million, respectively.
And Watt, who has two years left on his $11.24 million deal? Despite being arguably the NFL's most dominant player not taking starting snaps in Denver, New England or Green Bay, his contract situation has gone dark. Watt will be the ninth-highest paid player on the Texans this season, at $3.575 million. That's less than rookie Jadeveon Clowney ($4.04 million), who has yet to take a regular-season snap in the NFL.
One league source told Yahoo Sports the two sides were not close to a deal as of last week. Indeed, the only real news has come from odd (and remarkably early) negotiating flares sent by Texans owner Bob McNair. Less than two weeks ago, McNair told ESPN.com that the team is willing to use the franchise tag on Watt after 2015, and has settled on a "team-first" stance in the approach to negotiations.
That raised a few eyebrows in the NFL agent community, largely because talk about franchise tags and salary-cap responsibility are typically break-the-glass options for ownership – and employed when negotiations are going poorly.
For his part, Watt has said almost nothing. But what little he does say is clear: He knows he has vastly outplayed the salary he'll be paid this season, and he has noticed other elite players from his draft class getting such disparities resolved.
"It's been great to see some of these  guys get deals, because it shows that their teams appreciate what work they put in," Watt told Yahoo Sports last week. "You work extremely hard in this league to do as well as you can and hopefully earn that respect and to earn that appreciation.
"It's nice that those teams have shown that appreciation of their players. Those decisions aren't made by me. I know what I can do. I can work as hard as I possibly can. And then I'll let the team decide what I'm worth. Then we'll see how it goes from there."
Asked specifically how he feels about franchise tag talk, Watt paused, smiled, and reiterated his message.
"I like to see those guys be shown appreciation so far," he said. "I hope that I've worked hard enough and hopefully I've put myself in a situation where I can be shown some of the same appreciation. Hopefully they feel I've outplayed my current contract, but the end of the day, we're paid to play football. If I got paid a little more, I wouldn't be terribly upset."
To be fair, McNair's thought process regarding Watt isn't unconventional. The Texans have been a highly esteemed franchise when it has come to extending their stars. The deals that have to get done eventually get squared away. And Watt does have two years remaining on his deal – underpaid or not. But by the same token, Watt has been wildly special – a franchise cornerstone that former Texans defensive coordinator Wade Phillips considers to be the NFL's best player outside of a few elite quarterbacks.
"I've coached [Hall of Famers] Reggie White, Bruce Smith, and Curley Culp," Phillips said. "He's in that class. … I remember some people were saying he was a bust his rookie year. Yeah, he's gonna be a bust, all right. But it's gonna be a bust in the Hall of Fame.
"He's the perfect player."
Thus far, the Texans have been riding a stunning winning streak when it comes to their perfect player. Consider:
• On draft day in 2011, the Texans had zeroed in on troubled linebacker Aldon Smith with the 11th overall pick. San Francisco unexpectedly took Smith at No. 7, leaving the Texans to move to Plan B: moving Mario Williams to linebacker and taking a defensive end to slide into Williams' spot.
In hindsight, it would seem to be an easy call. But Phillips said there was a debate between Watt and another unnamed defensive end. And the decision was closer than anyone would want to admit.
"There was another guy," Phillips said. "I don't want to get into it, but half the people were for the other guy, and half of them were for J.J. But it worked out. We took the right one."
• Because Watt was drafted in 2011, he was subject to the first year of the collectively bargained rookie wage scale. Thanks to that negotiated tweak, his first contract as the 11th overall pick was for four years and $11.24 million. Comparatively, the 11th overall pick in 2010, Jacksonville's Tyson Alualu, signed a five-year $21.9 million deal.
And because Watt was drafted outside of the top 10, the team option for a fifth year (which the Texans picked up) is calculated by averaging the salaries of the third through the 25th highest-paid players at his position. If Watt had been selected one spot earlier, his fifth-year salary would have been the average of the top 10 players at his position.
• Unlike Ndamukong Suh, whose extension issues have loomed over the Lions, Watt went through the Texans' offseason without so much as a whisper about a holdout, taking part in all of the spring work. Why?
"I can be bigger," Watt said. "I can be faster. I can be stronger. I'm a young kid. I still have room to grow."
The same could be said of Watt's paycheck. And if he doesn't get an extension before the end of training camp, history suggests the Texans won't do a new deal before next offseason. Which is a risk. Much like Suh, it's expected that Watt's negotiations will start at highest-paid defensive player territory, which currently is Mario Williams' six-year deal reported to be worth as much as $100 million. And with the thus-far lackluster look of Houston's offense, Watt could have plenty of opportunities to pile up numbers.
None of which addresses the salary cap, which could jump anywhere from $10 million to $20 million next season. The bigger the jump, the more pressure it will put on the Texans to get Watt done before he goes into his final year. And he'll be watching multiple monster contract extensions for the rest of the class of 2011, too.
Until then, Watt will bide his time and live by a well-intentioned maxim.
"If they give you $2 of wage, give them $3 of work," Watt said. "That's what I'm going to try and do."
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