You’ll never guess what the Pittsburgh Steelers did on the first night of the 2017 NFL Draft.
They selected...a linebacker.
Actually, that would be, “say Watt?” Because on Thursday night, the Steelers used the 30th overall pick to select T.J. Watt. Yes, from that Watt family, the same family that gave the Los Angeles Chargers fullback Derek Watt and gave the Texans, well, pretty much the only defender they need in J.J. Watt.
Brother T.J. becomes the fourth linebacker chosen in the first round in the last five years by the Steelers, following Jarvis Jones — who Watt is ultimately replacing — Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree. Starting with Shazier, there is a clear pattern in who the Steelers want when they take a defensive player in the first round: exceedingly athletic, and still raw.
A lot of people hear “raw” in terms of football players and see it as a negative. But it carries the implicit truth that a raw player is still far from his ceiling. That’s pretty much exactly what we have seen from Shazier, Dupree and cornerback Artie Burns, who the Steelers took in the first round in 2016. It’s a formula that seems to be working and, as the old adage goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” With Watt, they probably will continue to have no reason to start looking for the duct tape.
In terms of athleticism, pretty much all you need to know about Watt is that he used to be a tight end. We aren’t talking about a tight end in the mold of Heath Miller, either. More accurately, think Jordan Reed. In fact, the comparison is pretty accurate, considering Watt is just an inch taller and only about 10 pounds heavier than Reed.
That athleticism gives Watt a great first step, and his acceleration to the quarterback is probably only exceeded in this draft class by Takkarist McKinley. It also means he already has a leg way up on Jones, because Jones never possessed that second gear once he turned the corner. Watt has it, with speed to spare. It also shows up in heaping helpings when he is in backside pursuit. Chase down mobile Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett from behind on a bootleg? No problem. It also gives him the ability to drop into coverage, which he did a good bit at Wisconsin. In fact, he lined up all over the field: one play at left outside linebacker, the next on the right; now he’s dropping into coverage from the inside linebacker position, and then he’s head to head with a slot receiver.
From his play on the field, he seems to be a coach’s dream. He may not be oozing with “wow” factor, but he does everything very well, with almost clinical precision. Take gap assignments, for instance. He sets the edge well, forcing runners back inside, and doesn’t overpursue. He stays put and lets the play develop, and sheds tacklers when the timing is right and the opportunity is there.
And it’s that workmanlike approach that shines in his entire game. You see Watt, and you see a student of the game and his position. He nails all the fundamentals: keep your hips squared to the play. Read your pre- and post-snap keys to know the play. Approach, set your feet, break down, wrap up and drive through the ball carrier. Check, check, check, check, check, check and check. And that’s all without even mentioning things like hand placement and a well-developed array of pass-rush moves.
What he is not is a weekly highlight-reel guy. He’s not out there so he can slap #SCTop10 hash tags on his highlight videos after the game. He goes out and simply does his dadgum job.
And the best part of it all is that he is probably still a long, long way from reaching his ceiling. He’s good at what he does, and has the tools to be great. If that sounds an awful lot like Burns, last year’s top pick, that’s because the same was said about him. By mid-season, he was one of the team’s starting cornerbacks, and by the end of the year, he was easily one of the two best rookie corners in the league, along with the Giants’ Eli Apple.
Maybe we will be saying the same thing about Watt a year from now. He certainly comes from good football stock, so there’s a strong likelihood that he will explode over the next two or three years. As it is, he’s likely to be splitting time with James Harrison from day one. In another year or two, Watt is probably going to be bookending the Steelers’ front seven with Dupree, who had five sacks in just seven starts in an abbreviated 2016 season.
If recent Steelers draft history is any indicator of Watt’s likely growth curve, that’s going to be a set of EDGE rushers no quarterback is going to want to face.