Judging by the reactions from fans on social media and in my text messages—my brother loved it!—after the Steelers made their first round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft Thursday night, it’s easy to see that the selection of Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt was a popular one.
With the lukewarm (at best) responses to previous first round selections such as Artie Burns and even Ryan Shazier, it’s nice to feel as if Pittsburgh won the day with its first round choice.
Of course, “winning” in April is nice, but the only real winning that counts begins in September, and that’s ultimately what the draft is all about.
When examining the Steelers needs heading into the draft, it was fairly easy to see which position was at the top of the list.
Despite all the talk of quarterback, tight end, receiver and even safety, outside linebacker was running neck-and-neck with cornerback as Pittsburgh’s top need, with OLB a few strides ahead.
Just three years removed from once announcing his retirement, sitting atop the Steelers depth chart at right outside linebacker seems a tad bit odd for James Harrison, who will be 39 by the time he plays another meaningful NFL game.
As it stands right now, behind Harrison on the depth chart is some guy named Kevin Anderson. In reality, of course, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo round out the depth behind Harrison and 2015 first round choice Bud Dupree, who mostly mans the left outside linebacker spot.
The excitement for Dupree is palpable and tangible, especially after he made his 2016 regular season debut following a stint on IR thanks to sports hernia surgery and recorded a pretty explosive 4.5 sacks in just seven games.
And you know what you have in Harrison on the other side, a guy who plays the run better than just about anyone at his position and also still has the ability to make the lives of left tackles and quarterbacks miserable (five more sacks in 2016 to go along with the 10.5 he had already recorded post-retirement).
But make no mistake about it, there was a very real need at outside linebacker.
Yes, the veteran Moats is a dependable player who can man both sides; and you like the potential of Chickillo, who made some strides in 2016, just two years removed from playing defensive end at the University of Miami.
But the outside linebacker spot, specifically the right outside linebacker spot, not only needs another play-maker, it needs the next James Harrison. The Steelers defense as a whole needs the next James Harrison. And if not him, the next Joey Porter, Greg Lloyd, Mike Merriwheather, etc.
In other words, the Steelers need someone to continue the tradition of excellence at the right outside linebacker spot, excellence that has gone virtually uninterrupted since the team switched to a 3-4 base back in 1983.
I say “virtually” because of the small hiccup that was Jarvis Jones, the team’s 2013 first round pick, who was supposed to be the next man to keep the tradition going. Unfortunately, Jones, while not a total bust, never came close to wreaking the same kind of havoc on left tackles and quarterbacks that his predecessors had (just seven sacks in four seasons).
That brings me back to Watt.
Just how good will he be? With just one year as a starter under his belt, two years of college football experience on his resume and coming out as a Junior to boot, Watt’s ascension up the draft charts this spring was probably based more on potential and name-recognition (you know who his brother is) than on productivity. But that production, while just one real season’s worth, was quite impressive (11.5 sacks in 14 games in 2016).
I’m not going to pretend that I know that Watt is the perfect fit for Pittsburgh or that he was the best player left on the board.
But I’m pretty easy to please when it comes to who the Steelers draft each year.
If that prospect addresses the top or one of the top needs, I’m happy. If he wasn’t a major reach (by most accounts, Watt was a top 30 prospect, one of the top outside linebackers, and a projected mid-first round to early-second round pick), I’m usually pretty satisfied.
So, in conclusion, the Steelers really did win the day with the selection of T.J. Watt.
Soon, we’ll get to see if Watt can continue the Steelers rich history at right outside linebacker and help them win many more days in the future.