The youngest brother of J.J. Watt is entering the NFL Draft. How does T.J. project in the NFL?
Over the course of the weeks leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top NFL prospects at each position. At the linebacker position, we take a look at the draft prospects of T.J. Watt from the University of Wisconsin.
Listed at 6‘4” and 252 lbs. at the combine, T.J. Watt is one of the best athletes of the 2017 linebacker class. The Wisconsin product actually began his college career as a tight end in 2014, but was largely unavailable due to injuries until mid-2015. During the summer of 2015, Watt was asked to switch positions to linebacker.
Following the switch, Watt really exploded in 2016 as a redshirt junior. Putting together 10.5 sacks and 59 tackles, Watt made a name for himself outside the umbrella that is his older brother, J.J. For his efforts, the Badger made AP’s second college football team and the All-Big Ten first team.
T.J. Watt’s greatest strength is his burst. Evident in both his film and measurables, Watt’s initial burst is undeniable. Compared to the other linebackers in his class, T.J. ranked first in broad jump (128 in.), second in high jump (37 in.), and first in both the 20-yard shuttle (4.13 sec.) and 60-yard shuttle (11.2 sec.). What’s most amazing about these comparisons is the fact that Watt was the biggest guy of the group, towering over his peers by an average of three inches! You can see Watt’s short-range speed here against Ohio State as he comes off a blocker to catch the running back from behind.
Watt also uses his hands fantastically for a college player who is still learning the linebacker position. While having fantastic burst, Watt’s hand usage is the more consistent manner through which he creates pressure. His game against Ohio State (one of the best teams in the nation, mind you) has several examples of excellent hand/arm technique. Below is one of T.J.’s longer, readily available films, but I’ll point out just a few spots for the sake of this section. 1:00 shows Watt using his hands excellently to shoot past the guard and tackle to create pressure. The 6:05 mark shows the Badger leveraging his long arms to pressure the QB. At 10:36 is just another example of his technique.
First, he’s too small, and it shows on the tape. At any point, if a big blocker is able to get between Watt’s pads, he is stuck. At 250 lbs., he doesn’t possess the strength to bull rush through bigger blockers. This will become an ever bigger problem at the pro level where blockers are better versed in their technique.
Watt’s size also becomes an issue in his schematic fit on an NFL squad. Mostly played in Wisconsin’s 3-4 defensive scheme as an outside linebacker, Watt was used primarily as a standing pass rusher. This means two things:
Watt was often schemed to come off the edge unblocked. The 4:12 spot in the Ohio State film shows exactly what I’m talking about as Watt gets a free tackle for loss. Certainly his sack and tackle for loss numbers are impressive from last season, but many came from unblocked positions.
Watt was rarely in coverage. Especially in games against the best teams in the nations, i.e. Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan St. etc., T.J. rarely dropped into coverage. When he did, he dropped to just a shallow zone. Without much coverage experience, Watt’s immediate impact in that respect at the NFL level is limited.
If we look at how these things translate to the NFL, we can see that Watt will be limited, at least in his first year, to pass-rushing duties. Without the size to set the edge (see GIF below) or the coverage skills to mark a tight end or slot receiver, Watt will only provide NFL-level production as a pass-rusher off the edge. Further, again, because of his size, Watt will most likely only fit in 3-4 defenses that don’t require outside linebackers to drop back in coverage. Given these factors, Watt’s NFL usage becomes rather limited.
Putting lack of size, strength, and coverage skills aside, Watt could still make the case for a first round pick if he showed a versatile pass-rushing repertoire. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. Of the six 2016 games I watched of Watt, I recorded just one spin-move. Other than using his hands and burst to attack the blocker before he’s ready, Watt shows very little in his pass-rushing arsenal. He doesn’t get low, he doesn’t bend, he doesn’t spin, and he can’t get out of the arms of bigger blockers. It’s difficult to see how Watt will be productive against NFL-caliber tackles and edge blockers.
T.J. Watt is a tweener, too small to be a defensive end, but without enough versatility to be a first-round linebacker. With his natural burst, big frame, hand technique, Watt should probably put on 10-15 pounds of muscle and go all-in to the defensive end position. Perhaps the extra weight and added strength could allow Watt to better leverage his burst to bull-rush through blockers. If he’s unable to do this, Watt might end up becoming just a pass-rushing specialist who gets rotated in on third downs. Depending on how confident a team is in his ability to get stronger, I’d rate Watt anywhere from early in the second round through the third round.
The Carolina Panthers are the first team that comes to mind in terms of best fit for T.J. Watt. With a head coach in Ron Rivera who wants to build a physical, tough defense, Watt could be a great addition for the Panthers. With aging defensive linemen and a shaky secondary, it is crucial that Carolina produces pass-rush pressure. Though this would likely require Watt to bulk up a bit to play defensive end in Carolina’s 4-3 scheme, the cultural fit and Carolina’s vision would be great for T.J.
Another interesting fit could be with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Another defense that wants to be tough and physical, the Steelers have been relying on a far-too-old James Harrison to produce pressure off the edge for them. Even if Bud Dupree is able to become half the monster that he was at Kentucky, Pittsburgh has very little depth to offer for pass-rushers. Operating in a 3-4 base defense, T.J. Watt would be a perfect rotational pass-rusher for the Steelers to slot in as Harrison continues to age.
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