T.J. Watt: His Own Man

With two older brothers already in the NFL, Steelers first-round pick T.J. Watt intends to carve out his own identity.

PITTSBURGH -- Trent Jordan Watt hadn't been with the Pittsburgh Steelers more than five minutes when he already had a game circled:

Christmas Day in Houston against the Justin James Watt-led Texans.

"It'll be weird to be on the same field as J.J. in shoulder pads," said T.J., the 22-year-old Steelers linebacker. "I was just thinking about that. I played with him in the backyard a bunch. I've seen him play a bunch. We've never been on the same field in full uniforms competitively before, so I think that'll be a really cool and kinda weird day for me."

T.J. Watt is the 2017 first-round pick of the Steelers. His brother is a superstar, a three-time AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year and four-time All-Pro who has 76 sacks in six seasons, even though he missed most of last season with a back injury.

J.J.'s 28, six years older than T.J. Both grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, Wisconsin, both went to college as tight ends and both converted to defensive end and played two seasons there at Wisconsin before becoming first-round NFL draft picks.

"We sat down and interviewed his brother in Madison, Wisconsin, some five or so years ago," Mike Tomlin recalled about J.J. "It wasn't much difference in the personalities then. I think (J.J.) has become the (gregarious) guy that we know today, so we'll see what type of man and player T.J. becomes."

Did T.J. say anything at HIS dinner with the Steelers?

"He said he wants to be his own man," Tomlin said.

That might take some doing, because it's a gigantic shadow from which T.J. hopes to break out. But he seems determined to try, and clearly has the potential. Obviously the Steelers think so.

"I’m sure he’s proud of his family name," said Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, "but I think he wants to make 'T.J.' just as proud as the 'Watt' name. There was just a feeling that you had that if you didn’t know who his family was, if you didn’t know who his  brothers were, he certainly wasn’t going to tell you. And I just think that was good for him."

There's actually a third Watt brother in the NFL. Derek, 24, is a fullback with the San Diego Chargers.

"It’s a unique story, three guys in the NFL," Colbert said. "But this is about T.J. and what he can do. I think once you meet him, you’ll get that feeling from him. I don’t think he ever mentioned any of his brothers – unless we asked about them. He’s himself, he’s his own man and he’s going to try to make his own mark. I wouldn’t be shocked if he tries to outdo everything that his family has done to this point. He seems to be that kind of guy and he’s going to be very quiet about it, too. This kid isn’t going to say a heck of a lot. He just lets his play speak for itself."

T.J. was an all-conference quarterback at Pewaukee High and threw for 527 yards and rushed for 554 as a senior. He also had 5 sacks as a pass-rusher and went to Wisconsin as a tight end. He had overcome patella subluxation surgeries on each knee when Wisconsin's new coach, Paul Chryst -- who had just left the same job at Pitt -- approached T.J. about moving to defensive end prior to the 2015 season.

"I think it took me all of 12 hours, if that," said Watt. "I went home and thought about it and came back and told Coach, 'I want to play defense.'"

He didn't start. Watt played in all 13 games as a reserve in 2015 and had only eight tackles, 1.5 for a loss.

The following season was much different. Watt started all 14 games at outside linebacker in the Wisconsin 3-4. He made 63 tackles with 15.5 for loss and 11.5 sacks. He also returned an interception 17 yards for a touchdown.

The 6-4 1/2, 252-pounder's sack total speaks to his pass-rush ability, and his 4.13 shuttle time at the NFL Combine speaks to his fluidity and potential in pass coverage. But will Watt be strong enough to play over tackles, even guards, in the Steelers' nickel defense?

"That's something I've been doing at Wisconin these past two years and I think that's why I translate so well to the (Steelers) defense," Watt said. "I've shown on film I can play a 3-technique if I really have to. I can set the edge really good, and I can get after the passer. I think that's ultimately what makes a really good football player and I think having great players around me is what's going to make us a great team."

"There’s no question about his versatility relative to the position," said Tomlin. "My first exposure to him was the LSU game at Lambeau (Field) earlier last year in September, and just to watch him with some of the things he was asked to do in that game. I think the myriad of things they asked him to do within that scheme made it an easy evaluation. You see him come off the edge, you see him drop into coverage and cover people, you see him work out of a rover front where he is floating over and around the ball in a similar way that we ask our guys to play. All of the things that he would be asked to do here, we’ve seen him do on Wisconsin tape and we’ve seen him do very well."

The Steelers first watched Watt early last season when Colbert sent two scouts to Madison.

"He was one of those junior-possibility guys that might come out early," Colbert said. "Coach Chryst actually texted me and said, ‘Hey, can you take a look at this young man, and give me an idea of where his draft value might be before he decides to come out?’ 

"We did that. I looked at him and said, ‘Coach, this kid is a first-round pick.’ So we followed up on that. Of course, we visited with him at the Combine. On one of our trips on the pro days, Coach Tomlin and I spent a night with T.J. He continued to impress." 

Watt felt from that point on he was a fit for the Steelers.

"I knew schematically it was a great fit for me and that's why I was intrigued by them so much," Watt said. "They did show quite a bit of interest, but then after pro day it tapered off. At that point I didn't know, but I had a gut feeling come draft night that it was a really good match for me and a really good fit and I thought it could happen."

Watt was mocked most often to his hometown team, the Green Bay Packers, who also are in need of an edge pass-rusher. But they passed, and Watt said it didn't faze him.

"Nah," he said. "I'm ecstatic to be a Pittsburgh Steeler. It's still crazy to say it. It's insane. I saw the Packers trade back and then I knew right away that it was a really, really good possibility to end up in Pittsburgh, and I'm so happy it happened."

Watt said he wasn't a Packers fan at that point anyway.

"I honestly did not have a favorite team coming into this whole process," he said. "I grew up watching my brothers playing football, so I didn't have a favorite team."

Ah ha, so he does bring up his brother without being prodded.

Perhaps for the last time.

"Obviously, everybody knows me as J.J. Watt's younger brother," T.J. said. "But people don't know the little things I do: the work ethic, the countless hours of film study, doing all the little things, getting the right amount of sleep, doing hydration, just treating myself like a professional athlete while I was still in college. I have learned so much from J.J. and I've been able to translate that myself, and I don't think people really even know who I am at this point just because I've been in such a big shadow. And that's why I cannot wait to get to Pittsburgh and become my own person."

His own man.


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