It’s said a draft class can’t be fully graded until at least three years after the picks are made. That’s why after submitting grades for every Pittsburgh Steelers pick made in 2021, I went back three years and graded every selection from the 2018 class. But why stop there? Why not continue to go back through past Steelers’ classes with even more time to prove picks good/bad, and see how well each turned out? That look back begins today with the team’s first-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Wisconsin outside linebacker T.J. Watt.
This exercise will follow the same six viewpoints (listed below) for examining a pick that re-grading the 2018 class did. Each of the first five viewpoints gets examined and assigned a letter grade, before taking that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one that could’ve been better spent elsewhere.
Each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made; consider the grades weighted. For example, to return a high grade in pick value, a first-round pick should have a long and impactful career, while a later-round pick needs only a couple seasons as a back-up or modest contributor to be worth the selection used on him.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 1, Pick 30: T.J. Watt, OLB, Wisconsin
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: A+
Get used to seeing this grade, because it’s going to show up a lot. Watt could retire tomorrow and rank among the better pass rushers in Steelers’ history. Another couple seasons at his current pace, and he will be the best in franchise history with still half a career left to play.
In four seasons, Watt has missed two games. He has at least 13 sacks in his last three, and had seven as a rookie. Watt is a two-time All-Pro, three-time Pro Bowler, and has led the NFL in sacks, tackles for loss, and forced fumbles in his career. In four seasons and 62 games, Watt has 49.5 sacks, 111 quarterback hits, 17 forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, four interceptions, 25 passes defensed, 230 tackles, and 59 tackles for a loss. Watt has twice been in the top three for the Defensive Player of the Year Award.
The future horizon looks just as good. Many project Watt to receive the richest contract for a defensive player in NFL history from the Steelers within the next calendar year. He remains one of the consistent favorites to win the Defensive Player of the Year award this season. Within the next few seasons (at close to his current pace), Watt will own the franchise’s career sack record. There is not a reason that exists to drop this grade lower than a perfect mark.
PICK VALUE: A+
Similarly, look at what Watt has done in four seasons and find something that shows he hasn’t more than lived up to the 30th overall selection. If Patrick Mahomes did not exist, Watt is the frontrunner to go first overall in a re-draft tomorrow. He would still maintain excellent value if he had been selected somewhere in the top five or 10. Going 30 picks into the draft is a steal for the NFL’s best pass rusher. It’s not an exaggeration to call the pick on the best values Pittsburgh has received from any selection in Kevin Colbert’s two-decade tenure as general manager, even if it was a first-round selection.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A+
Watt is more than just the top option among linebackers selected in the 2017 class. If he is playing major league ball, the rest of his position-mates are stuck in extended spring training. This class was by no means shallow at edge rusher. Tyus Bowser carries excellent potential for Baltimore. Trey Hendrickson and Carl Lawson just scored handsome contracts as free agents. Haason Reddick had a breakout year last season after converting from inside linebacker. Yet it is Watt who has twice the sacks of any of them, in addition to running away with the lead in forced fumbles, tackles for loss, and QB hits.
Even expanding it to include edge rushers who fill a defensive end role instead of outside linebacker, Watt is the clear top option. Myles Garrett, that year’s consensus No. 1 pick, only trails Watt by seven sacks and like him is one of the best at his position in the NFL. But it is Watt who is the clear top edge rusher and defensive player from this class.
OTHER OPTIONS: A+
At this moment in time, only one name in the entire 2017 class would give pause to drafting Watt, and Mahomes went 20 selections above him. So looking at the remaining options, both the next 32 picks and the entire 223 players taken after 30th overall, there isn’t anyone who is a better choice here.
It’s not to say there weren’t other standouts taken between 31-62. Ryan Ramczyk is one of the best tackles in football and went two picks after Watt to New Orleans. Ditto for Dalvin Cook at running back, going 41st to Minnesota.
Behind the elite players, safeties Budda Baker (36th, Arizona) and Marcus Maye (39th, N.Y. Jets), receiver Curtis Samuel (40th, Carolina), safety Marcus Williams (42nd, New Orleans), Bowser (47th, Baltimore), Joe Mixon (48th, Cincinnati), and defensive tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (55th, N.Y. Giants) have all had very successful four-year careers to this point. But in an absolutely loaded second round (and end of the first), Watt stands out.
OVERALL GRADE: A+
Giving nothing but A+ grades to a player is not what this exercise is designed to do. A grade on either end of the scale, A+ or F, is supposed to be something exceedingly rare and impossible to earn without extenuating circumstances influencing the mark.
Players like T.J. Watt are very much an exception to the rule, though, particularly when arriving beyond the top half of the first round. And to call him a generational talent and one of the best pass rushers to ever play in the entire NFL is hyperbole only four seasons in. But examining this pick and Watt’s career from each of the viewpoints guiding this exercise, there isn’t fault to be found with the selection.
His numbers are quickly climbing the Pittsburgh franchise leaderboards, and he is a two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler in four seasons. His numbers outperformed a top 10 pick, let alone 30th overall. No edge-rushing linebacker from his class comes close to what Watt can do on the field. And even in a loaded next 32 picks, only two (Ramczyk, Cook) rank among the elite at their position the way Watt does at edge rusher, but still don’t usurp Watt as the player likeliest to go first among the trio in a re-draft. There is still a long career left for Watt to come down to Earth or continue ascending into space. But re-grading things right now, Pittsburgh made the perfect pick at 30th overall.