The 2018 NFL Draft is drawing near, which seems to be a fitting time to take a look back at the rookie seasons of the Pittsburgh Steelers class from the 2017 NFL Draft. People start talking about the quality of a draft class before said class is even completed, of course, but now we have a year of data to work form.
Over the course of the next several days, I will be providing an overview of the team’s rookies, as well as an evaluation of each rookie that the Steelers drafted, while also noting any undrafted free agents that were able to stick around. This will not include the likes of Mike Hilton and Kameron Canaday because they were first-year players, not rookies.
The Steelers went into the 2017 NFL Draft with eight selections, including one in each round at their natural selections, as well as an additional pick in the third round as compensation for the net losses that they were dealt in free agency from the 2016 offseason.
Continuing a recent trend, the class has proven to be top-heavy in terms of early results, though there are still opportunities for those selected by them in the later rounds of the draft to develop into bigger contributors as well.
Player: T.J. Watt
Draft Status: 1st round (30th overall)
I think it would be a fair evaluation to argue that T.J. Watt had the best rookie season of any Steelers first-round draft pick since center Maurkice Pouncey in 2010. Pouncey was the only other rookie in that span to be a wall-to-wall starter as a rookie, and he actually ended up as an All-Pro.
While Watt might not have received similar accolades, he did turn some heads during his first season in the league. In 15 games, he recorded 54 tackles with seven tackles, a forced fumble, an interception, and seven passes defensed. The seven sacks are the second-most recorded by any rookie player in team history, behind only Kendrell Bell.
As mentioned, Watt was a day-one starter, in spite of the fact that he came out of college as an inexperienced player. When the team drafted him, however, they were deliberate in refusing to label him as ‘raw’, arguing instead that his actual skillset was advanced for his level of experience.
I think that proved to be true, as the youngest Watt brother showed an impressive array of abilities, as well as moves, during his rookie year. His hand usage as a pass rusher was advanced at times, particularly in the second game against the Ravens, for example.
Most importantly and impressively, he was used extensively in the coverage game, dropping into a zone or in direct coverage something like 35 to 40 percent of the time, and the fact that he was able to get his hands on eight passes in the process is indicative of the sort of success that he had.
His genes and family ties were clearly an asset in enabling Watt to get an early advantage in his career, but he also seems capable of continuing to build on what he started as a rookie, which was already a solid season for a starter.
He has talked about areas he is targeting for improvement this offseason, including gaining strength and working on his open-field game, improving his tackling efficiency in such situations. If he can continue to develop, he will be a critical component of this defense for years to come. Perhaps even the featured piece.