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Steelers 2017 Draft Retrospective: Was T.J. Watt just what the doctor ordered?

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When the Steelers made their opening pick of the 2017 NFL Draft by selecting linebacker T.J. Watt, many were excited at what the younger brother of uber defender J.J. Watt would bring to the table. But how right were we?

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to first-round picks in the NFL Draft, few teams have had the success enjoyed by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite the occasional Jarvis Jones, it generally looks like pure genius when reviewing the Steelers’ first-round selections in retrospect.

In 2017, Pittsburgh selected T.J. Watt our of Wisconsin. Watt, the younger brother of Texans defensive lineman J.J. Watt and Chargers fullback Derek Watt, can hardly be viewed as anything other than a success after his first season.

But that’s not what this retrospective is all about. Instead of looking at how well he performed, this is my chance to either gloat or eat crow, as we look back at how his season compared to my own expectations. And to reassure you, I’m never one to shy away from my own bad predictions — like when I predicted Jarvis Jones would have at least eight sacks in 2015, or that their 2016 run defense would be a top-three unit.

And then there was last season, when I predicted quarterback Ben Roethlisberger would have a “career year” before he spent the first six weeks stinking like a dirty diaper.

This time? No crow for me today, thank you.

What I said

Watt [has] a great first step, and his acceleration to the quarterback is probably only exceeded in this draft class by Takkarist McKinley. ... 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.

What happened

Watt’s greatest asset in 2017 was his athleticism, which saw him line up all over the field. His first career interception came on a play in which he lined up in his normal position, then split wide on the slot receiver before falling into an intermediate zone along the seam. He read Cleveland quarterback Deshone Kizer’s eyes and made a leaping grab. In that game, he also tallied six tackles and two sacks.

It was his first career game.

One of those two sacks was partly the result of good coverage downfield, partly because it was also Kizer’s first game and he held the ball too long, and partly because of Watt’s relentless motor that saw him fight through three blockers and two complete changes in direction.

What I said

It also shows up in heaping helpings when he is in backside pursuit.

What happened

This is one of my favorite parts of Watt’s game. As he somewhat hit the proverbial “rookie wall” late in the season, it got a little sloppy at times, but Watt spent the better part of the season tracking down running backs and quarterbacks alike in backside pursuit. His read-and-react times were downright phenomenal for a rookie, no doubt helped by the tutelage of brother J.J. through the years.

What I said

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.

What happened

Despite a wealth of great first-round picks, Watt may rank among the best for the Steelers because of how much room he still has for improvement. The game has yet to fully slow down for him, and yet he was a playmaker all season. There is little reason to think he won’t make a significant leap forward in 2018.