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Point/Counterpoint: Will Pittsburgh Steelers’ T.J. Watt be a day-one starter?

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The Steelers appear to have drafted the athletic, physical and versatile outside linebacker they’ve needed to replace Jarvis Jones and, eventually, James Harrison. But is T.J. Watt going to pick things up fast enough to be the starter at right outside linebacker in week one?

Big Ten Championship - Penn State v Wisconsin Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

True or false: T.J. Watt will start opposite Bud Dupree in week one.

Mike Frazer

True.

When you watch film on Watt, what you see immediately is a guy who has a solid grasp of his responsibilities on the field. For a rookie outside linebacker, that’s uncommon. Typically, these guys have two roles: rush the passer, and stop the run, in that order. Partly, that’s because the college game is even more heavily slanted toward throwing than the pro game, and it shows in the ridiculous scores we’ve seen in recent years.

That’s also due in part to the fact that coaches only really get two or three years with most college players who eventually go pro, and there is only so much wisdom you can impart to a kid who is preoccupied with studying and — let’s be honest here — partying. The reality is that truly cerebral collegiate athletes are rare.

That’s one part of what makes Watt special. The other part is that he has managed to get such a strong grasp of the position in such a short time, especially given that he was used all over the field at Wisconsin. He’s a converted tight end and a transfer, both of which limited his playing time as an outside linebacker. But, with his pedigree, it’s no shocker that he managed to move to the other side of the line of scrimmage and excel there quickly: as a younger brother of J.J. Watt, it’s simply in his blood.

All of that is to say that the Steelers will likely want to see what Watt can do if he gets thrown to the wolves early. First-round picks don’t sit long in today’s NFL, and the Steelers have a legitimate reason for getting him on the field quickly: James Harrison is yet another year older, and is doing things that are pretty much unheard of for a man of his age. If he team wants him to be fresh late in the season, when rookies typically hit a wall, it’s in their best interests to rest him early so he can spell Watt for the stretch run and into the playoffs.

There’s also a more basic reason for getting Watt into the starting lineup quickly: to rinse away the stinking memory of Jarvis Jones’ “pass rush” as soon as possible.

Jeff Hartman

False.

T.J. Watt is a tremendous talent, and, in my opinion, the future of the outside linebacker position in a lot of ways. He has shown he can rush the passer from the inside and outside linebacker positions while at the University of Wisconsin, is athletic, fast and has the pedigree to back up all of these claims.

With that said, there is no way he is a starter when the Steelers break camp at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, PA. Watt will play, but he will be behind James Harrison on the depth chart until the 39 year-old linebacker decides he has had enough of the game and hangs up the cleats, this time for good.

What I do expect from Watt in his rookie season is for him to almost be a sub package specialist, outside of spelling Harrison when necessary. When the Steelers go into their nickel and dime sub packages, as well as other defensive looks which have been deployed under Keith Butler, Watt has the coverage skills, as well as the versatility to be a linebacker on the field who can cover tight ends and still be a threat to do multiple things (rush the passer from different positions, drop into coverage, etc.) from a defensive schematic standpoint.

Watt is a sideline-to-sideline player, and the Steelers would be foolish not to utilize those strengths, even as a rookie, but when it comes to someone who can rush the passer and set the edge in the running game, few are better than James Harrison. Watt will learn under the greatest 3-4 outside linebacker in Steelers’ history, and will get his chance to start in either 2018 or 2019.

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