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ESPN predicts Steelers’ OLB T.J. Watt to win Defensive Rookie of the Year

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It’s been a long time since the Steelers have had a Rookie Defensive Player of the Year winner. Could T.J. Watt be the next?

NFL: Cincinnati Bengals at Pittsburgh Steelers Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been an extremely long time since the Steelers have seen one of their rookie defenders win the rookie-of-the-year award. The last to claim this title was Kendrell Bell in 2001.

Could the next player to win defensive rookie of the year be T.J. Watt? ESPN certainly thinks so, and he would join Hall of Famers Joe Greene and Jack Lambert, the only other Pittsburgh defenders to claim such an illustrious award.

So, let’s look into ESPN’s reasoning behind thinking Watt is the next big thing in the Steel City.

While we're dealing with a remarkable set of impressive rookie talent on offense, this defensive class has more subtly impacted the league in 2017. The best rookie defenders have lined up in the secondary, which is traditionally a spot in which rookies struggle to adapt to the speed and physicality of the professional game. The relative lack of counting stats outside of interceptions has also made it difficult for rookie cornerbacks and safeties to win Defensive Rookie of the Year, as I mentioned during the quarter-season awards.

Take White, who struggled against the Jets on Thursday night but has otherwise continued to play at a shockingly high level for a rookie cornerback. White had an interception and a fumble recovery for a touchdown during the first four weeks of the season. He's still tied for the league lead in passes defensed (12), but the Bills cornerback has no picks and a lone fumble recovery to his name over the past five weeks, which has kept his profile low. It's an unfair standard to hold him to.

There are other rookie defensive backs who deserve attention. Marshon Lattimore has been one of the leading lights in a stunning season from the Saints' defense, although he has missed time. Shaquill Griffin has held his own as the newest member of the Legion of Boom. Corner Rasul Douglas has shored up the obvious weak point of Philadelphia's roster heading into the season. The safety duo of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye has been the most exciting element of a surprising Jets defense, although I suspect they might cannibalize each other's votes in the award race.

Rookie pass-rushers usually win this award, but none of the edge rushers have broken out from the pack as of yet. Carl Lawson leads all freshmen with 4.5 sacks and 10 knockdowns, but he's narrowly ahead of T.J. Watt, who plays on a higher-profile (and more successful) Steelers team. Watt has four sacks and six knockdowns in seven games. Solomon Thomas, toiling in the trenches for a winless 49ers team, backs up his two sacks with eight quarterback hits and six tackles for loss against the run, although he's out with a knee injury.

The wild card here is No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, who has been an absolute force for the Browns during his fleeting moments of health. Garrett has played only 105 snaps in three games while missing time with a high ankle sprain and a concussion, but he has racked up four sacks and seven knockdowns. Watt, for comparison, has similar numbers over 335 snaps.

Projected winner: T.J. Watt, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers

Watt hasn't been as productive on a cumulative basis as Lawson, nor has he been as impressive on a per-snap basis as Garrett. I'm not sure that matters to the electorate as much as playing well on an every-down basis for one of the league's most successful teams, though, and the Steelers are in great shape to finish as one of the best teams in the league. Watt's playing time continues to rise as the season goes along, and it would be foolish to pretend his famous last name won't cause some less-dedicated voters to look his way.

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Was their case convincing? Do you think Watt has a legitimate shot at winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award?

Let us know by voting in the poll below, and let us know your rationale in the comment section below:

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Will T.J. Watt win the Defensive Player of the Year Award?

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  • 73%
    Yes
    (1321 votes)
  • 26%
    No
    (478 votes)
1799 votes total Vote Now