You have to like where former Wisconsin Badgers standout T.J. Watt landed.
The Pittsburgh Steelers selected Watt, the All-American and consensus All-Big Ten selection, with the 30th overall pick in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. The choice by head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert shouldn’t be surprising. Outside linebackers coach Joey Porter worked out Watt during Wisconsin’s pro day in March, and Colbert noted on Thursday evening that they spent time with the Pewaukee native during that period as well.
Watt led the Big Ten with 11.5 sacks and paced the Badgers’ defense in tackles for loss (15.5) and quarterback hurries (13), and appears to be headed to a team where he’ll learn from Bud Dupree and James Harrison.
Behind the Steel Curtain’s Jeff Hartman takes a look at how Watt figures into the Steelers’ plans in the immediate and long-term future.
What was the initial reaction when the Steelers drafted Watt at No. 30? Maybe one fan wasn’t necessarily thrilled (and made for some hilarious social media responses afterwards), but it seems like many should be happy with the pick?
To be honest, I have yet to see anyone on our website, or social media platforms, who wasn’t at least “okay” with the pick. There are those who wanted a different player, but Watt not only has the name, but he has the pedigree to go with the name. Throw in the fact the Steelers showed a lot of interest in Watt this offseason and the majority of the team’s vast fan base seemed to be good with the 30th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Tomlin didn’t want to call Watt “raw” but just a player with not a lot of experience. Will Watt be expected to contribute immediately with the likes of Dupree and Harrison in front of him?
I think it is this situation that will help Watt thrive. In other words, he won’t be stepping in and starting right away. He will be able to spell Harrison, but will most likely be someone who steps in and is able to help fill in when needed. However, don’t be shocked to see Watt be a pseudo sub-package linebacker who has the speed and versatility the team desires when it’s not in the 3-4 base defense.
Porter worked out Watt and Vince Biegel during Wisconsin’s pro day. How do you expect Watt to be used in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense?
The Steelers only ran their base 3-4 defense 25 percent of the time in 2016, and that will likely resume in 2017. The team doesn’t ask its linebackers to just rush the QB anymore, and this is where Watt could thrive. The team will ask him to be more of a sideline-to-sideline player, utilizing his speed and athleticism against the spread offenses so commonly run in today’s NFL. That doesn't mean he won't get to pin his ears back and get after the QB; these are merely suggestions for his rookie season.
What’s been the Steelers’ track record of drafting defensive players and developing them into significant contributors, especially in the early rounds?
Unfortunately, they have a rather sordid past when it comes to the scenario you just outlined. They have picks like Jarvis Jones and Senquez Golson, but also selections like Dupree and Artie Burns. Time will determine just how well Watt does, but if history is any indicator, nothing is a guarantee.
In your opinion, what’s the long-term trajectory of Watt’s role in the Steelers’ future?
I think the hope is he is the future at the OLB position for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Despite his best efforts, James Harrison can’t play forever, and Watt could be the perfect player to fill the role of pass rusher, but also all the other detailed work which makes a huge difference in today’s NFL.