Scott Taetsch / Contributor

The $20 million non-quarterback didn't exist when training camps opened in 2018. It wouldn't stay that way for long. Rams interior defensive lineman Aaron Donald was the first to reach the mark when he signed a six-year, $138 million contract extension averaging $22.5 million per year about a week before the regular season started. He would soon have company. Within 48 hours of the deal, edge rusher Khalil Mack received a six-year, $141 million extension averaging $23.5 million per year from the Bears in conjunction with his trade from the Raiders.

The 2020 season was a banner year for non-quarterbacks. Browns defensive end Myles Garrett became the NFL's first $25 million per year non-quarterback last July. About two weeks later, Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa surpassed Garrett. Bosa signed a five-year, $135 million extension averaging $27 million per year. The deal has $102 million in overall guarantees where $78 million was fully guaranteed at signing, which are both the most ever in an NFL contract for a non-quarterback.

Cardinals wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins, who was acquired from the Texans last offseason in a trade, replaced Bosa as the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback at $27.25 million per year. He signed a two-year, $54.5 million extension as the start of 2020 regular season was approaching.

The $30 million-per-year non-quarterback didn't seem imaginable three years ago. Now, it isn't a matter of if someone will hit the $30 million-per-year mark but when. This is partially because the salary cap is set to explode in the coming years thanks to new media rights deals reportedly worth $113 billion over 11 years and an influx of gambling revenue. It could happen sooner, though.

Steelers edge rusher T.J. Watt is the next non-quarterback in line for a major payday. Team president Art Rooney II would like to get a deal done with him before the regular season starts, which is Sept. 12 for most teams. The Steelers have a long standing policy against contract negotiations during the season

Watt, who is scheduled to make $10.089 million on a fifth-year option this season, has essentially been a spectator in training camp practices. This has led to speculation that his lack of participation is contract-related. It's hard to imagine a Watt deal that doesn't make him the league's highest-paid non-quarterback.

Watt can make a legitimate case for $30 million per year. He led the NFL with 15 sacks and 23 tackles for loss last season. Watt's 42.5 sacks over the last three seasons are second only to Donald's 46.5.

Not only has Watt earned All-Pro honors in each of the last two seasons, he has been an NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate. In fact, Watt has gotten the most DPOY votes during this span. His 30 votes are two more than Donald's, the 2020 winner.

Watt would need a 10.1% increase over Hopkins to hit the $30 million-per-year mark. A double-digit percentage increase, when becoming the NFL's highest-paid non-quarterback, isn't unprecedented. Donald got nearly 18% more than Broncos edge rusher Von Miller, who had been the non-quarterback standard bearer on the six-year deal he signed in 2016 averaging $19,083,333 per year.

The Steelers may have to be accommodating on average yearly salary unless they are willing to deviate from their preferred vanilla contract structure with veteran players. Outside of quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's deals, the only guaranteed money is a signing bonus. Roethlisberger's salary guarantees have been for injury only.

The bigger deals contain a third or fifth day of the league year roster bonus in the second and third years. The roster bonuses are supposed to be substitutes for additional contract guarantees. The overall guarantees in Pittsburgh contracts are usually less than comparable deals on other teams, which means Bosa's guarantees marks should be safe.

Pittsburgh sticking to its typical structure may make it necessary to give Watt a record signing bonus for a non-quarterback. Donald's $40 million is the biggest.

Regardless, Watt's average yearly salary, at a minimum, should be closer to $30 million than Hopkins' $27.25 million, with $28.625 million per year the midpoint of these salary benchmarks. With an increase comparable to Bosa's 8% over Garrett's deal, Watt would be in the $29.5 million-per-year neighborhood.

The Steelers would certainly use a franchise tag next year on Watt should he play out his rookie contract. The NFL and NFLPA recently agreed to a salary cap ceiling of $208.2 million for 2022. Next year's linebacker franchise tag should be 9.024% of the 2022 salary cap. At the $208.2 million ceiling, the 2022 linebacker number projects to $18.788 million. A stellar 2021 season without a long-term deal would give Watt more ammunition to hit or break the $30 million-per-year barrier.

Niners edge rusher Nick Bosa may be the best bet to be the first $30 million-per-year non-quarterback if Watt doesn't get there on an extension in the coming weeks. The 2019 second overall pick will be eligible to sign a new deal once the 2021 regular season ends on Jan. 9, 2022. Bosa would first need to display the form that made him the 2019 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in his return from the torn left ACL he suffered in the 49ers' second game last season.

One thing the 49ers won't have to contend with that will make it easier to handle a massive Bosa contract is a high-priced quarterback. Incumbent starter Jimmy Garoppolo, who has two years remaining on his $27.5 million-per-year deal, won't be on the team next year. He will be traded or released, most likely next offseason, because of Trey Lance.

The 49ers moved up from the 12th overall pick to the third pick to select Lance in the 2021 NFL Draft. The earliest Lance will be able to sign an extension is in January 2024 after the 2023 regular season ends.