It was announced yesterday that the Pittsburgh Steelers have earned yet another Pro Bowler for the 2018 season, with outside linebacker T.J. Watt accepting an invitation to the game as an injury replacement for Houston Texans edge defender Jadeveon Clowney. He is now their eighth player to make it this year, with JuJu Smith-Schuster previously replacing…Antonio Brown. But Brown was named outright, and so retains his Pro Bowler status even though he will not be at the game.
Watt is in his second season after the Steelers made him their first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. He is the first defensive player since Kendrell Bell for the team who was a wall-to-wall starter, meaning that he began his career on opening day in the starting lineup and never lost his job during the season. Not even two-time Pro Bowler Ryan Shazier did that.
And similar to Smith-Schuster, a very fair argument can be made that Watt should have been a Pro Bowler outright rather than as a replacement. I’m assuming he was a first alternate, though we can’t say for sure, because another player may have declined ahead of him.
The second-year man finished the 2018 season with 68 tackles and three passes defensed—oh, and 13 sacks, which is the most any Steelers defender has put up since 2009 when LaMarr Woodley had 13 and a half. He forced six fumbles, the second-most in franchise history behind James Harrison’s seven in 2008.
Let’s compare those numbers to Jadeveon Clowney. He played in 15 games, recording 47 tackles—a three-year low—with one forced fumble, one pass defensed, and nine sacks, just half a sack off his career-best total from 2017.
In comparison, those are certainly not Pro Bowl numbers, though of course you can’t only look at numbers. And it’s worth adding that Watt added to his numbers late—but so did Clowney as well.
To his credit, Clowney had more consistent success as a pass rusher in terms of generating pressure than did Watt, but that was an issue that the latter addressed in the second half of the season. Watt also had a relatively high number of missed tackles, something he knows he has to clean up
Obviously there is still a lot of room for the youngest Watt brother to grow, but I do think a very good case could be made, looking at the options for the 2018 season, that he ought to have been in the Pro Bowl on his own merits and should not have had to go through the back door.
Once you’re in, however, it’s easier to stay in, as we saw with Cameron Heyward and Shazier in the past two years, though in Heyward’s case it also included an official change of his designation to an interior defender. Will this be the first of a number of Pro Bowls for Watt? I certainly hope so, because the Steelers need that kind of talent at that position.