Should T.J. Watt Be Considered A Legitimate Candidate For DROY?

While I’ve yet to see any odds related to the subject, it’s evident so far this offseason that none of the “experts” believe Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt has a legitimate chance at being named the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year. That’s certainly somewhat understandable being as several of this year’s first-round draft picks who play on the defensive side of the football enter the league with more accomplishments than Watt in addition to more experience. Even so, while Watt obviously shouldn’t be considered a favorite to win the annual Defensive Rookie of the Year award, he figures to have a fighter’s chance just the same.

For starters, you must go all the way back to the 2006 season to find a player who wasn’t drafted in the first round that ultimately won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. That player was inside linebacker DeMeco Ryans, who was drafted by the Houston Texans in the second-round. Ryans, in case you forgot, registered a stellar stat line during his rookie season that included him finishing second in the NFL that year in total tackles with 156. He also registered 3.5 sacks that season to go along with 13 total tackles for a loss. In short, it will be surprising if one of this year’s 19 first-round defensive players doesn’t win the annual Defensive Rookie of the Year award after the 2017 season.

Now, dating back to 1999, only one time has a defensive back been named the league’s Defensive Rookie of the Year and that happened just a few years ago when Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Marcus Peters accomplished the feat thanks mainly to his league-best 8 interceptions. That was one heck of an accomplishment and one that’s unlikely to be duplicated for some time. Basically, for a defensive back to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in any given year, that player more than likely needs 6 or more interceptions just to have a chance.

Of this year’s 19 first-round defensive players, 8 are defensive backs. By the way, 3 of those 8 play safety and we haven’t seen a rookie playing that position win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award since the 1990 season when Mark Carrier accomplished the feat with the Chicago Bears. In short, I would bet strongly against any defensive back winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2017 for obvious reasons.

If you go back through the trends I’ve already cited, one must think that Watt is one of 11 players with a much better than average chance of winning the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Of those 11 players, three are off-the-ball linebacker types in Haason Reddick, Jarrad Davis and Reuben Foster.

As we’ve seen in the past, in order for an off-the-ball linebacker to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year award, it usually includes said player needing to register well over 100 total tackles during the regular season, being as that position normally doesn’t allow players the opportunity to get very many sacks. With that said, the Defensive Rookie of the Year award has been won by an off-the-ball linebacker five times dating back to 2006, so you definitely can’t rule out the aforementioned players as being serious contenders in 2017 based on past history.

When it comes to rookie edge rushers and defensive line types, it’s obvious that sacks, tackles for losses and stuffs are the key stats related to their chances of winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award. Just last year, San Diego Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa easily won the Defensive Rookie of the Year award even though he only played in 12 games. Bosa, by the way, registered 10.5 sacks in just 561 total defensive snaps played and that makes his rookie season accomplishments even more impressive.

Ok, now back to Watt and his chances of winning the Defensive Rookie of the Year award in 2017.

With veteran outside linebacker James Harrison still in Pittsburgh, it’s not hard to imagine him beginning the regular season as the starter on the right side ahead of Watt and thus playing the lion’s share of the snaps during the first quarter of the regular season. While that might ultimately wind up being the case, you can bet that Watt will see playing time right away. The offseason reports on Watt from his teammates, coaches and members of the media have been glowing so far and that’s probably not too surprising being as he enters the NFL with a strong football pedigree, a great work ethic and a very above average football IQ.

Assuming Watt remains on his perceived upward trajectory throughout training camp and the preseason, in addition to keeping himself healthy, it’s easy to project him playing at least 500 defensive snaps on the low side during the regular season. As previously noted, Bosa only played 561 defensive snaps during his rookie season, but with that stat reiterated, Watt will undoubtedly be asked to drop into coverage some during his rookie playing time and that’s something the Chargers defensive end wasn’t asked to do much of, if any at all. When Watt is asked to drop into coverage, it will obviously come at the expense of him being able to rush the opposing quarterback.

Now, for Watt to have a chance at hitting 10 sacks or more during his rookie season, he might need to play roughly 700 defensive snaps. In short, he’ll probably need to average roughly 40 snaps a game during his rookie season at a minimum. If Watt can overtake Harrison for the lion’s share of snaps on the right side by the middle of the regular season, he might have a shot at double digit sacks if he can manage 3 or 4 quarterback take-downs by the time the Steelers bye week rolls around. It’s not unthinkable that such a scenario might happen and especially when you consider the fact that the Steelers will be doing everything in their power to get their first-round draft pick on the field as much as possible in addition to them trying to preserve the now 39-year-old Harrison.

Make no mistake, Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, San Francisco 49ers defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, and Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Derek Barnett should all be legitimate early candidates to win the 2017 Defensive Rookie of the Year award as all three will likely to get plenty of playing time right away. Also, as previously mentioned, Reddick, Davis and Foster all can’t be discounted for the same reasons. Regardless, Watt shouldn’t be ignored as a candidate to win the award this year, long odds and all.

NFL Rookie Defensive Player of the Year Stat Lines (2007-2016)
2016 Joey Bosa Chargers 12 11 41 29 12 17 7 10.5 0 1
2015 Marcus Peters Chiefs 16 16 60 53 7 2 0 0 26 8 2 1
2014 Aaron Donald St. Louis Rams 16 12 48 38 10 18 10 9 1 2
2013 Sheldon Richardson New York Jets 16 15 78 42 36 12 9 3.5 1 1
2012 Luke Kuechly Carolina Panthers 16 16 164 103 61 12 7 1 8 2 0 0
2011 Von Miller Denver Broncos 15 15 64 50 14 19 7 11.5 4 2
2010 Ndamukong Suh Detroit Lions 16 16 66 49 17 13 6 10 3 1 0 1
2009 Brian Cushing Houston Texans 16 16 133 86 47 12 7 4 10 4 0 2
2008 Jerod Mayo New England Patriots 16 16 128 100 28 5 3 0 4 1
2007 Patrick Willis San Francisco 49ers 16 16 174 135 39 8 7 4 5 2
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