PITTSBURGH – In another season, in another time, the thought of the Steelers selecting another linebacker in the first round of the NFL Draft might have drawn criticism, if not yawns.
This is not that time.
For the fourth time in five years, the Steelers used their first-round pick to select a linebacker. This time, the selection of T.J. Watt from the University of Wisconsin at 30th overall will be greeted by the masses a little more warmly.
The Steelers, who fell just a win short of the Super Bowl last January, don’t have many glaring weaknesses on their roster as currently constructed, but they did have some areas of need, perhaps none more pressing than at outside linebacker.
Paired with Bud Dupree on the right side, it is hoped that Watt can be another building block on a young defense that made tremendous strides during the second half of the 2016 season. With Ryan Shazier, Stephon Tuitt, Artie Burns, Sean Davis, Javon Hargrave, Dupree and now Watt, all under the age of 25, the Steelers have the makings of a formidable defense for a few more seasons to come.
After a slow start, the Steelers ranked ninth in sacks with 38 last season. James Harrison, who turns 39 next week, led the Steelers with just five sacks. That was the smallest sack total to lead the Steelers since L.C. Greenwood in 1980.
In an increasingly pass heavy league, the best defenses have to get a consistent pass rush to contend with the Tom Brady’s of the NFL. The hope is that Watt, who had 11.5 sacks in 14 games for Wisconsin last season, can do just that.
“I truly am scratching the surface of what I can do,” Watt said. “I feel the sky is the limit for what I can do on the football field.”
Of course, Watt is best known as being the younger brother of Houston Texans All-Pro tight end J.J. Watt and L.A. Chargers fullback Derek Watt. Coincidentally, the Steelers will meet the Texans on Christmas night in Houston. On the field, the 6-foot-4, 252-pound Watt is most often compared to Green Bay’s Clay Mathews.
“I don’t think people really know who I am because I’ve been in such a big shadow,” Watt said. “That’s why I can’t wait to get to Pittsburgh and kind of become my own person.”
Unlike Jarvis Jones, Pittsburgh’s failed first-round pick from four years ago, Watt will have the luxury of working with James Harrison as a rookie.
While Harrison was toiling briefly in Cincinnati in 2013, Jones, the heir apparent to Harrison in Pittsburgh, was thrust into a starting role and never seemed to get his career on track after suffering a wrist injury. Harrison was later coaxed out of retirement and Jones was never able to step out of the Steelers’ all-time sacks leader’s sizable shadow.
If this is Harrison’s last season, he can teach Watt the ropes.
“I’ve watched him for years growing up,” Watt said. “Especially now since I’ve been on the defensive side of the ball, I’ve watched him more and more. He’s a really good veteran presence and a really good football player. I cannot wait to get under the tutelage of him in that locker room.”