Examining the young career of Steelers LB T.J. Watt, he has already joined elite company and is now on pace to what few have done in the NFL.
30.5, 16.5, 15.0, 14.0, 10.0, 9.0, 7.5. The career sack totals of all front-seven defenders that were selected in the first round in the 2017 NFL draft (excluding LB Reuben Foster). Of course, the Steelers were on the backend on the draft at pick 30, after an 11-5 2016 season. Consequently, one name stood the test of time and has exceeded all the competition listed above, even more so to now be compared to the greats: Steelers outside linebacker, T.J. Watt.
Announced by Steelers legend, RB Jerome Bettis, “with the 30th pick in the 2017 NFL draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers select…TJ Watt, linebacker, Wisconsin”. A charade of praise echoed by boos, the former would be correct in their initial reaction, to what has been the start to an illustrious career.
The 30, 30, 70 Club
This may resemble the random jaw-dropping ESPN “[insert numbers] in a home game on a Sunday evening matchup on October 27th that no other player has done before” type of stat, considering the reader may have never heard of this, but the group is pretty dignified. To begin the article, numbers were listed to show career sack totals so far for edge defenders that were drafted in the 2017 draft, however, Watt’s wasn’t & that’s where the search started.
Since 2017, no other player in the first round or that whole draft year of the matter, has recorded more than Watt’s class-leading 34.5 sacks. Cleveland Browns DE Myles Garrett is the runner-up at 30, and as it is more than just sack numbers to prove a rusher’s dominance, Watt remains in elite territory.
Realizing that QB hits are only recorded as far back as 2006 through pro-football-reference.com, here is the list of players since to have at least 30 sacks, 30 TFL, & 70 QB hits.
Aldon Smith – (42, 42, 74)
J.J. Watt – (36.5, 74, 108)
T.J. Watt – (34.5, 36, 70)
Ezekiel Ansah – (30, 35, 71)
One of the greater “what if” stories of our time, a generational soon-to-be Hall of Fame icon, the young guru of the group, and an athlete who’s peaked reached early but then took a serious fall. All coveted and heralded among the best in the league at points in their careers, TJ is filling their shoes & on an increasing pace that could land him in even more historical, accomplished lands.
As Aldon & J.J. were able to explode immediately into the NFL, both posting 19+ sack seasons by their sophomore years, TJ has a claim to be the only one out of the four who has achieved statistically better in all 3 categories each season. Ansah was close in doing this, but half a drop in sacks from year 1-2 prohibits him, and it poses the question. How far can TJ Watt go?
Make It Six
An obvious first-round talent ever since being a Badger, Watt has been an alpha dog to the Steelers defense that rose to high-level occasions across the board in 2019. Leading the NFL in turnovers per game, the Steelers defense were also tied for 1st in opponents yards per play, and then ranked top 5 in points per game, red zone scoring percentage (TDS only), and opponents yards per game, according to teamrankings.com. Also considering the Steelers were one of the worst in time of possession offensively, enough praise cannot be given to what the defense was able to sustain throughout the year.
Watt himself performed at a career-high level in numerous areas with 2 interceptions, 8 pass deflections, 8 forced fumbles, 4 fumble recoveries, 14.5 sacks, 14 TFL, & 36 QB hits, while being ranked 2nd in ESPN’s metric of pass-rush win rate among DE/OLB at 28%. Making a very demanding case for the AP Defensive Player of the Year award, he was then triumphed by Patriots CB Stephon Gilmore. There is no doubt T.J. Watt has the ability to be in this race again immediately in 2020, but there’s another achievement waiting around the corner as well that could project the grandeur of them all.
Ever since “The Minister of Defense” DL Reggie White made his claim to be the best in NFL history, he & only four other players have accrued at least 50 sacks in their first four seasons. Either a Hall of Famer or expected to join the ranks of the upper echelon, this list does not get too much better from what we have witnessed on the field.
Rising steadily since a rookie, Watt has gone from 7.0 to 13.0 to 14.5 sacks through his first three years and needs 15.5 for what could be his most electric season to date. Nearing the end of his contract (pending the 5th-year option), money is already in a Brinks truck waiting to be delivered, but with an expected increase to the cap space, Watt could surpass all in the league & with a possible accomplishment that only his brother can currently speak of.