The Pittsburgh Steelers selected T.J. Watt in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft, and if you are like me, you haven’t seen much of Watt in his time at Wisconsin. I’m not a huge college football fan, and when the Draft rolls around I have to really do some homework on prospects since I don’t follow the college ranks all that much.
When it comes to Watt, and him being the prized Steelers draft pick, I felt it would be appropriate to reach out to those who covered him when he was a Badger. I was able to ask Jake Kocorowski and Owen Riese of Bucky’s 5th Quarter, SB Nation’s Wisconsin blog, a series of questions to get a feel for the newest member of the black and gold.
Check out the interview below:
T.J. Watt, like his brother, was a tight end who converted to a defensive player. This has caused many to have pause over his potential at the NFL level. How has he progressed since moving to the defensive side of the ball?
Jake: He's really only played outside linebacker for two seasons, and he led the Big Ten in sacks last year with 11.5. Even in his first year at that position in 2015, then-defensive coordinator Dave Aranda utilized him in some subpackages later in the season--a testament to Watt's work ethic, talent and the mentoring of outside linebackers coach Tim Tibesar. Last season at the beginning of spring ball, he worked with the first-team defense alongside fellow potential NFL draft pick Vince Biegel and didn't stop his development. As noted before, he put up huge numbers -- racking up 17.5 sacks and pressured the quarterback on a consistent basis.
On Thursday evening, Mike Tomlin mentioned how he didn't think Watt was "raw" but just not with a lot of experience. He showed in just under two years how he's progressed substantially to be a dominant force in college. He's athletic and has the motivation to become better every practice, every snap. He's only going to learn more under the tutelage of Joey Porter and the Steelers veterans.
Owen: Watt was moved to defense in 2015 when Paul Chryst took the UW job, and was a rotational pass rusher later in the season. 2016 was his first year as a starter, but he took advantage of the opportunity. He was absolutely a defensive leader by the end of the year. He came a long way from 2015.
Watt's NFL Scouting Combine was ridiculous in many ways, but what would you say his weaknesses are as a complete player?
Jake: The experience is the one major call out. His brother, J.J., was a tight end as well previously but started for Wisconsin for two seasons at defensive end before heading to the NFL (that doesn't include being on scout team the first season due to NCAA transfer rules -- so essentially three years on defense). Odd tangent, but all three Watt brothers initially played a different position than what they came to be (J.J. and T.J. at tight end, Derek was a linebacker before switching to fullback).
Being up to 252 pounds at the Combine should help him sure up against an NFL run game even further (not that he was bad at all, quite the contrary, but could make him even more explosive). I think once he continues to refine technique and the intricacies of being an outside linebacker, he'll be a significant aspect of the Steelers' defense.
Owen: Watt has bulked up about 10 pounds since the season, but Watt's biggest weakness was probably his run defense. He made a lot of really impressive plays against the run, but there were times where he would get washed, and lose contain. He'll need to improve his anchor again the run in the NFL.
With his weaknesses out of the way, what is it that Watt does particularly well, and do you think it could translate to an immediate impact, even part-time, at the NFL level?
Jake: On the field, his motor and ability to pass rush was significant. I don't think Wisconsin fans realize how lucky they were to see Biegel and Watt together on the field as edge outside linebackers. He's quick, and I believe it's been said in other scouting reports, but he has significant ability to use his hands to shed blocks, block passes, or as seen against Purdue, tip and intercept a pass and return for a pick-six. Like his brothers, he has a strong work ethic which showed in him rapidly improving to the point UW wanted to get him on the field in 2015. In 2016, the breakout year was evident.
The willingness to adapt and learn will only help him excel in development and progress further. I'm not too educated on the Steelers' depth at outside linebacker, but I feel--like he did in 2015 in his first year at that position--he'll find a way to get on the field as the season moves on.
Owen: Watt is the energizer bunny on defense. His motor runs white hot at all times. His definite strength is as a pass rusher. While he doesn't show the fluid hip flexibility and bend all of the time, there are flashes of it. Very good with his hands, that's how he'll win as a pass rusher.
In your opinion, did you have Watt with a 1st round grade, or did the Steelers reach?
Jake: I thought Watt would go in the first round. I know Owen had him late first-early second, and a few other draft analysts were torn between "absolutely" and some still skeptical. His NFL combine scores were through the roof, and with his on-the-field work and potential, I thought he'd be a target for many teams (he did visit quite a few according to reports).
He's still learning just because of that limited experience. However, he has all the physical tools, combined with the mental strengths and drive, to be a factor at the next level.
Owen: I took a bit of flak for this, but I personally was relieved when Green Bay traded out of 29, but that had less to do with Watt and more to do with the Packers' roster situation. He went in the right range.
What is your overall opinion of Watt as a player, person and prospect? Steelers Nation wants to know more about him other than his family lineage.
Jake: I had the opportunity to cover T.J. the past few years, with him really exploding late in 2015 and all of 2016. He can be soft spoken, but cares about what he brings to the team and carries himself well. By all indications, he appeared to be a great teammate and was always cordial with and answering questions from the media during interviews.
You've probably seen the articles already about "emerging" from his brother's shadow. T.J. has the athletic make-up and the work ethic to be a really good if not great player in the league. There's an energy that he plays with that made watching Wisconsin's 3-4 scheme exciting. Going to the Steelers was probably one of the best fits for him with Bud Dupree, Ryan Shazier and James Harrison as mentors. Pittsburgh fans should be excited for how Watt develops in the coming months and years ahead.
Owen: I loved him as a Badger. He's an exciting player and will work very hard. He's got the right guy to talk to as far as help with development. He'll keep his head down and work hard and will become a fan favorite for the Steel Curtain.