It is often the case that NFL teams who play in a ‘base’ 3-4 front, regardless of whether or not they play in a true base of the 3-4 since the proliferation of the nickel defense, have had to do an extra level of projection when drafting players to occupy, for example, their outside linebacker role.
A good deal of some of the best outside linebackers in Pittsburgh Steelers history, at least during the 3-4 era, were actually college defensive ends who played with their hand in the dirt. There are a few notable recent exceptions, but the majority of them have had to learn to play standing up, as well as assuming other responsibilities that differ between linebacker and end as edge defenders.
As a result, man of the Steelers’ biggest busts at the position have also come from this group of players, largely because they never learned out to adapt to the new scheme, yet were not suited for continuing to play in a 4-3 at the NFL level.
The Steelers, however, have now used a first-round draft pick on an outside linebacker three times within the past five drafts, and all of them have played the position at the college level. First there was Jarvis Jones, then Bud Dupree two years ago. Now we have T.J. Watt, and despite his inexperience at the position, the Steelers are confident in their evaluation because of what they saw him do on tape.
“Just watching him play, there’s no question about his versatility relative to the position”, Head Coach Mike Tomlin said about Watt during the team’s post-pick press conference. “Just to watch him with some of the things he was asked to do in that game”, he recalled of seeing him play last season in Lambeau Field, for which he was on hand.
“I think the myriad of things they asked him to do within that scheme made it an easy evaluation”, he continued. “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”, Tomlin continued, “and we’ve seen him do very well”.
Later, while a reporter was painting him as raw, Tomlin said that he would rather characterize him as inexperienced. “He’s a guy who doesn’t have a lot of experience at the position, but in watching his game tape it’s not extremely evident”.
Another reporter asked Tomlin about Watt playing the end position in their nickel front and whether it would be a difficult transition. “I don’t anticipate it being that”, the coach said. “I would imagine there’s going to be some growing pains with the transition, globally speaking, but not that technique. Specifically, he was asked to do the same thing within his scheme at Wisconsin. And he did it very well”.