Wisconsin - LB - TJ Watt - Is he the next Clay Matthews?

Let's play a game. Who am I describing here?

  • 6’5”
  • Attended Pewaukee High School (Pewaukee, WI)
  • Recruited as a Tight End out of High School
  • Attended the University of Wisconsin and eventually transitioned over to the defensive side of the ball
  • Breakout Junior season – Led Badgers in Tackles For Loss and Sacks, Top 5 in BIG 10 in TFL
  • Named 1st-Team All-Big Ten as a Junior
  • Named 2nd-Team AP All-American as a Junior

Well, it's a trick question because I'm describing both JJ and TJ Watt. The youngest of the Watt brothers, TJ, will soon be joining his two older siblings in the NFL. Derek Watt is currently an FB with the Los Angeles Chargers and JJ Watt is, of course, the All-World DL on the Houston Texans, as well as being one of the most famous athletes in the world today.

After capping off his Wisconsin career with a phenomenal Junior campaign and with "Watt" across his nameplate, there is certainly going to be unfair expectations that will be placed upon TJ's shoulders. Watt has been projected to sneak into the late 1st Round of the 2017 NFL draft by many in the industry and he even received a Clay Matthews comparison from NFL Network's, Mike Mayock.

Is this high praise warranted? Let's find out.

Games Watched: LSU (2016), Western Michigan (2016), Michigan (2016), Penn State (2016), Ohio State (2016), Michigan State (2016)

For those unfamiliar with TJ Watt's story, he started out as a Tight End at Wisconsin. After being sidelined his first two years in Madison due to an injury to each of his knees, new Wisconsin Head Coach, Paul Chryst asked Watt about a position switch to Outside Linebacker in 2015. Well, two seasons later and Watt has burst onto the scene as one of the nation's most productive linebackers. In his only season as a starter, Watt led the Big Ten in Sacks and was 4th in Tackles For Loss.

Obviously, Watt's production was top notch but I'd like to start out by highlighting how advanced Watt's football IQ is for a guy who is relatively inexperienced at his position. Take the below play vs LSU for example. It's 3rd & 6 and LSU is in a favorable passing formation with 3 WR's and a TE. With that in mind, Watt (#42) who is rushing off the edge pumps his breaks once he sees the LSU QB stop his drop and turn his shoulders to throw. Watt recognizes LSU is looking to execute a quick pass and that he won't be able to reach the QB, so he does the next best thing and attempts to get in the throwing lane to knock the pass the down or intercept it. Once the QB moves off his initial read, Watt watches his eyes and flows with the action almost making a play on the ball on the opposite side of the field from where he started.

Despite his prowess as a pass rusher, Watt actually impressed me more as a run defender. Watt wreaked havoc in the run game often crashing down the line of scrimmage effectively erasing cutback lanes for the running back and displaying his unrelenting motor in pursuit. Watt uses his hands and length well to disengage and shed blockers and can get skinny if he sees a crease to shoot and make a play. These traits also show up again when he rushes the passer.

Watt (#42) steps up, takes on and sheds the pulling Guard to fill the hole and is in on the tackle.

Watt (#42) steps up, takes on and sheds the pulling Guard to fill the hole and is in on the tackle.

Watt’s go-to move as a pass rusher is what’s called a “push-pull.” What this move does is use the offensive lineman’s momentum against them. So how it works in Watt’s case is that he uses his long arms and heavy hands to his advantage by getting his hands into the chest of the offensive lineman. This initial punch is key because it’s intended to knock the offensive lineman off balance as they’re backpedaling and gaining depth. As soon as they try to regain their balance and lean back in, the defender will then pull them forward and then rip or punch to slip by the defender. When Watt was moved around the formation he was effective at timing and shooting gaps to create disruption up the middle. I wish the Badgers used him more in this aspect. Watt used his long arms and bend to fend off offensive tackles when he was turning the corner to bear down on opposing QB's.

As I mentioned earlier Watt has shown an awesome football IQ and motor. There is no quit in his game. Watt goes for the football ball when another teammate has the ball carrier wrapped up. He's always getting his hands up and attempting to obstruct passing lanes when he isn't getting to the Quarterback. Watt has already mastered some on the nuances of the position that people who have played his position his whole life still don't have down.

With inexperience comes growth and part of that growth is realizing what you are and are not good at. At Wisconsin, Watt was fine with jamming a tight end and dropping in his specific zone but I worry about his ability in man coverage at the NFL level. Below is Watt vs a top tier RB talent in Saquon Barkley. Watt honestly does all he can to flip his hips and stay with Barkley and looks pretty fluid doing so he's just not that elite caliber of an athlete.

Watt burned on the wheel route by Saquon Barkley

Watt burned on the wheel route by Saquon Barkley

In run defense, Watt struggled mightily with double teams. TJ will need to add another 10-15 pounds of muscle to his frame so he can better stand his ground and live in the trenches and not get washed out in the run game by NFL lineman.

This additional weight and strength that Watt will surely be able to add to his frame will translate to a more effective bull rush. Right now Watt can bull rush TE, FB, RB but was often stoned vs some of the best lineman he faced.  Watt also isn't able to consistently layer pass rushing moves together when getting after the Quarterback. The issue with this is that once Plan A is shut down by an offensive lineman Watt is done. As he broadens his collection of pass rushing moves this will change. Again, he's played this position for two years. This stuff takes time but for a fair evaluation, I need to point out where he's at right now.

So where do I stand on TJ Watt?

Honestly, the player he reminded me of most is Kyler Fackrell, who the Packers drafted in the third round (88th Overall) last year. This comparison is based on measurables, skill set, and usage but I think Watt has much more upside. He's a few years younger than Fackrell coming out and has more projection to his game having only spent a few years at OLB. Oh, he also has the Watt pedigree and a brother who is the best defensive player in the world to show him the ropes. Where I differ from most evaluators I've seen so far is that I think at the next level Watt has some untapped versatility. Right now, I see Watt as more of a blitzer than a pure edge talent because he doesn’t have that explosive first step or trump card pass rushing move.. That’s why I don’t see the Clay Matthew comparisons at all. Matthews 10-yard split at the NFL Combine, which measures explosion out of your stance AKA rushing the passer, was better than Von Miller, Julio Jones, Calvin Johnson, Odell Beckham etc. When you combine that burst with Matthews strength and speed you get a Pro Bowl player right out of the gate.

I realize there might some criticism to this stance so if your argument is, “What do you know? Look at how much better JJ Watt got as a pro. No one saw that coming!” then you’re probably ignoring the fact that JJ Watt tested like an alien. Athleticism matters a ton when it comes to pass rushers at the next level and I think TJ Watt, while boasting great size, will test middle of the pack athletically for an NFL edge defender. He'll need to master more of the tricks of the trade to reach his potential as a pass rusher.

If your argument is, “He put up 11.5 Sacks and 15.5 TFL in his only year as a starter. How does that not translate?” then I’ll bring up players like Nate Orchard and Jackson Jeffcoat. Do those names ring a bell? Well, they’re the 2013 and 2014 winners of the Ted Hendricks Award, which is given annually to the nation's top defensive end. In 2014, Orchard (6’3”, 250 LBS) finished with 21 TFL and 18.5 Sacks. In 2013, Jackson Jeffcoat (6'3", 247 LBS) had 19.5 TFL and 13.0 Sacks. Through his first two seasons Orchard has 3 Sacks. Jeffcoat had 1 Sack in his first two years and was out of the league in 2016. Just showing you production doesn’t always translate.

Please don't twist this into me saying TJ Watt doesn't have a place in the NFL. I'm not saying that. I'm just trying to set realistic expectations for him because I think the perception is that he’s a plug and play starter.

Do I think TJ Watt should be a first round pick? No, especially considering how deep this class is at edge rusher.

I do however think Watt is the perfect mid Day 2 pick. Watt fits best as a 3-4 Outside Linebacker in the NFL. In his first few years while he's adding strength and developing his game I think he can be an intriguing blitzer from all over a formation, where he's able to shoot a gap or catch lineman off guard with his length and heavy hands. Watt has made impressive strides as a defensive player over the past two years and has the tools to continue to develop and become a nice starter in this league. I'm just not going to call him the second coming of Clay Matthews.

NFL Player Comparison Spectrum: Chandler Jones, Connor Barwin, Derrick Morgan/(X), Shea McClellin/Kyle Van Noy/Kyler Fackrell, Jarvis Jones