While the Pittsburgh Steelers were fortunate enough to get two very solid seasons from rookie starters last year in first-round outside linebacker T.J. Watt and second-round wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, I feel as though some are almost bracing themselves for an ‘inevitable’ regression.
After all, just last season, we were expecting to see much more growth from two rookie starters of the 2016 class, first-round cornerback Artie Burns and second-round safety Sean Davis, and some people already want to see them benched, or even cut.
I have a hard time envisioning that sort of regression for either Watt or JuJu, but perhaps Watt especially, who is about as driven a player as I’ve seen enter the league with the Steelers in a while. Considering his background, his performance as a rookie was already impressive.
And he is hungry to get better. Telling Missi Matthews recently for the team’s website that he is a goal-oriented person, he talked about how he wants to improve this offseason, and how his target areas are a result of reviewing his season and determining where his weak spots were by the end of the year.
“There are so many plays out there that I wish I would have made”, he said, after acknowledging that he did make some plays. He finished the year with seven sacks, an interception, and a forced fumble. “I definitely grew throughout the season, but I’ll always want more”.
He also talked about how he has developed a relationship with Cameron Heyward and how the defensive captain has, as Watt told Matthews, “kind of taken me under his wing”. Both players come from football families and have a driven and determined personality, so they seem a natural pairing.
Heyward did advise him that it is important to take time off, and he said that he will heed that advice, which is something that he already learned from his older brothers, who are also in the league. But when he returns, he knows what he wants to work on.
“I really want to focus on my pass rush”, he said, reminding that “I’m still really new to this whole defensive thing. A lot of people forget, this is my third year playing defense”. He was a tight end before converting to defense late in his college career. To that end, he said, “this offseason [I also want to] work my pass rush, work on in-space tackles. I missed a few too many tackles in space this year”.
And “it wouldn’t hurt to gain a few pounds, eat a little bit more would be nice”, he added. While he didn’t mention at what weight he played, the team’s website, which is famously inaccurate or at least slow to be updated on such matters, lists him at 252 pounds.
I’m having a hard time being down on Watt. He has already had some tangible success, but given his relative newness to the position, his tremendous natural athletic abilities, and his professional mindset, it’s difficult to imagine him not continuing to develop into a very good player.