Nobody is surprised anymore whenever somebody mentions T.J. Watt’s name in a list of the best defensive players in the NFL right now. After all, why would you, after he finished the 2019 season third in voting for the Defensive Player of the Year Award—doing so in just his third season?
The 30th-overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers has already solidified his reputation as an elite young defender, separate from the legacy of his own older and still-dominant-when-healthy older brother, J.J. Watt, who is one of only two players in NFL history to win the Defensive Player of the Year Award three times.
Being a great defensive player and being a great edge rusher are two different things, however. Watt is the type of player who can and will do anything you ask him to do. He can hold the point against the run, and he can cover as well. It has only been more recently that his pass-rushing game has truly taken off.
Late last week, Bucky Brooks included him on his list of the top five edge rushers in the NFL heading into the 2020 season, albeit at the fifth spot. Ahead of him were placed Chandler Jones, Cameron Jordan, Danielle Hunter, and Khalil Mack, who are all great players in their own right. On Watt, he wrote:
It didn’t take Watt long to figure out how to consistently get to NFL quarterbacks off the edge. The No. 30 overall pick in 2017, Watt has piled up 27.5 sacks and 14 forced fumbles over the past two seasons. He was a splash play machine in 2019, finishing third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. Watt’s energy, athleticism and hand skills make him a nightmare to block when he is in attack mode off the edge.
A fair assessment to be sure, and really, there’s no compelling reason to think that Watt shouldn’t be at least as good in 2020 as he was last year, if not better. Chances are, he’s not going to replicate the eight forced fumbles that he produced—tied for the most in team history, if I’m not mistaken (at least the most since 1993, according to Pro Football Reference)—but his tape should be every bit as strong, whether or not it comes with an equal amount of splash.
I still look back and laugh at myself for having my doubts about the player Watt would be able to develop into. Even after his rookie season I questioned how much further he could take his pass-rushing game. Since then, he’s merely put up the most sacks by a single Steelers defender in consecutive seasons all-time. Kevin Green’s 26.5 in his first two years comes the closest. James Harrison also had 26.