Leading up to the 2011 NFL Draft, the Cowboys spent time considering a pass rusher from Wisconsin by the name of JJ Watt. Ultimately, the team went in another direction (perennial All-Pro OT Tyron Smith has worked out nicely), but they may be having a slight case of déjà vu.
Yes, Wisconsin LB TJ Watt is JJ’s youngest brother, but regardless of the bloodline, he is a prospect who has made a name for himself during the evaluation process.
TJ Watt started his career at Wisconsin as a tight end, red-shirted, battled injuries, underwent a position change, and finally won a starting job in 2016 as an outside linebacker in Wisconsin’s attacking 3-4 scheme.
Boy, did he run with it, receiving numerous accolades along the way including first-team All-Big Ten and second-team All-American honors. And although versatile enough to play LB in a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme, it is Watt’s ability to generate pressure off the edge and get to the quarterback that has me intrigued from a Cowboys perspective.
When watching TJ, there are plays that kind of remind you of his brother. He plays with a similar motor, but you also can see the athleticism that runs in that family.
Watt starts the play crashing down the line, but quickly recognizes the misdirection and carries the running back, slipping out of the backfield. Watt knows he has help behind him, and times his attack on the quarterback impeccably. What resulted was an athletic display of playmaking ability as Watt picked off the pass and took it to pay dirt.
He also possesses a good foundation of technical pass rushing skills that can translate to the NFL. Watt understands leverage and knows how to use it to get to the quarterback. He has the skill to utilize a push pull technique to set his man up, as an example.
Watt shows off his ability to extend and get his hands on the tackle, pushing him back and then dipping around him as he is off balance. Even as the tackle is trying to grab him, Watt fights through and finishes off the play with the sack.
Primarily utilized as a standup linebacker, Watt excelled at generating pressure. Wisconsin often disguised coverages and moved Watt around, but he consistently got to the quarterback as indicated by his Big 10-leading 11.5 sacks. He also showed strength at the point of attack against the run, and even some coverage ability against backs.
At the combine, Watt carried over his momentum from the 2016 season. He showed elite athleticism across the board, but what stood out to many observers was his 3-cone time. For those unfamiliar, the 3-cone is an excellent indicator of agility and fluidity.
For pass rushers, prospects that perform the drill in under 7 seconds stand out, and on the other end of the spectrum, those who are exceptionally high demonstrate stiffness. Watt (6.79) silenced claims that he didn’t have enough bend and has jumped up draft boards as a result.
The critics of Watt will also try to paint him as a “one year wonder” that can only play linebacker. Although he never played with his hand in the dirt at Wisconsin, I still see a player who can help teams immediately as an edge rusher regardless of scheme.
Watt will be attractive to 3-4 teams as a plug-and-play OLB, but he also could be a versatile chess piece in a 4-3 and contribute instantly as a strong side linebacker who additionally can rush the quarterback on passing downs as he bulks up and eventually becomes a full time right defensive end.
The Cowboys have obvious needs on the defensive side of the ball, but none are bigger than the void they have on the edge, as Aaron Rodgers has exposed in their two most recent playoff runs. If Watt is available when they select, this could be the ideal scenario for the franchise where talent and need match up. And although the Cowboys passed on JJ in the first round six years ago (with good reason), they will be hard pressed to pass on the younger Watt this time around.
Check out more NFL Draft thoughts from Joe on Twitter @Joeweave3.