T.J. Watt spent his childhood playing in the considerable shadow of older brothers J.J. and Derek.
The neophyte linebacker still very much in the embryonic stage of his career will get his chance to step into his own with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The reigning AFC North champions selected Watt with the 30th overall pick in the draft on Thursday, won over by the 22-year-old’s energy and the raw materials they covet: namely speed, potential and an ability to get to the quarterback as often as possible.
Watt started just one season at Wisconsin but made it count, picking up 11 1/2 sacks for the Badgers. Not bad for a player who arrived at Wisconsin in 2013 as a tight end and didn’t switch to defense until 2015. By last fall he was a linchpin on one a team that went 11-3 and beat Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.
In a way, Watt views his inexperience as a selling point.
“I was a first or second team All-American after 18 months of playing defense,” he said. “I’m scratching the surface of what I can do.”
Watt joins a team that fell one win short of the Super Bowl after getting carved up by New England’s Tom Brady in the AFC championship. The Steelers struggled to generate any kind of consistent pressure on Brady, something they know they need to change if they want to end the Patriots’ vice grip on the conference.
While cautioning that Watt still has plenty to learn, his new bosses didn’t exactly shy away from expectations.
“To do that in his first year at the position is really amazing,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. “You expect natural growth against better competition … There’s no reason why he can’t contribute and be a significant player, but he’ll be a young player.”
The 6-foot-4, 252-pound Watt joins an outside linebacker group that includes James Harrison, who turns 39 next week, and 2015 first-round pick Bud Dupree. Pittsburgh let Jarvis Jones, the franchise’s top pick in the 2013 draft, walk in free agency after four underwhelming seasons.
Enter Watt, who flipped from tight end to defense in 2015, though the transition was slowed after he injured his right knee in spring practice. Finally healthy last fall, he was a dominant force, a trait that runs in the family.
Watt’s selection gives his family three players in the league. J.J. Watt is a perennial All-Pro defensive end for the Houston Texans. Derek Watt appeared in all 16 games last season for the Chargers as a fullback. T.J. and J.J. will meet on the field as opponents for the first time when Pittsburgh visits Houston on Dec. 25.
“It’ll be weird to be on the same field as J.J. in shoulder pads,” Watt said. “I played with him in the backyard a bunch, but we’ve never been on the same field competitively before.”
It’s a dream Watt held onto throughout his sluggish start at Wisconsin, and he played so well in 2016 that Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst — who previously coached at Pitt — reached out Colbert and asked him to gauge Watt’s potential as an early entrant in the draft. When the Colbert’s evaluation projected Watt as a potential first rounder, Watt joined the fray.
Now he finds himself in a league where T.J. — a three-time defensive player of the year — is one of the brightest stars. Sure, there’s pressure. Then again, without spending his life watching J.J. do his thing, Watt understands he might not even be here.
“People don’t know the work ethic, the countless hours of film study,” he said. “I was treating myself like a professional athlete while still in college. I learned so much from J.J. … I don’t think people know who I am at this point because I’ve been in such a big shadow.”
The time to emerge from it will begin on Friday when he arrives in Pittsburgh, poses in a black-and-yellow jersey and tries to live up to the legacy of both the name on the front and the name on the back.
“I wouldn’t be shocked if he tries to outdo everything his family has done to this point,” Colbert said.
Their biggest need met, the Steelers will have three picks during the second and third round to address depth concerns in the secondary.