TJ Watt is one of the most dominant players in football, fresh off a 22.5 sack season and Defensive Player of the Year honors. The fact the Pittsburgh Steelers could take him 30th overall turned out to be an absolute steal. But not everyone was convinced Watt would be a first round pick. In fact, the NFL told him to go back to school for one more season.
Watt joined Pardon My Take Wednesday and talked about his decision to declare for the draft a year early for the 2017 draft.
“I had two years at Wisconsin where I actually played,” Watt told the show’s Dan Katz and PFT Commenter. “I had the one year  where I switched to defense and played behind Vince Biegel and Joe Schobert. And then in spring ball, played the one year and started. NFL told me return to school. I submitted my papers and said, ‘you don’t know me, you don’t know the work I’ve put in, what I’ve been through,’ and was able to be a first round pick.”
Watt switched from tight end to linebacker at Wisconsin. After being a backup in 2015, he broke out as a starter in 2016, finishing the year with 11.5 sacks and a pair of forced fumbles.
The NFL advisory board issues grades to players after the college season ends, giving players advice on where they are projected to be taken and if they think players should declare for the draft or not. The board offers three assessments: first round, second round, or return to school, the latter meaning they don’t believe the player will be taken in the top two rounds.
How wrong that turned out to be. Watt boosted his stock throughout the pre-draft process, running a 4.69 at 252 pounds with an excellent 37 inch vertical, 10’8″ broad jump, and outstanding 6.79 three cone. Pittsburgh grabbed him 30th overall thanks to the Dallas Cowboys passing on him, believing Watt was too small to be a 4-3 base end. They chose Taco Charlton, now one of Watt’s teammates.
As Watt alluded to and as he discussed in detail in the podcast, he suffered a laundry list of knee injuries and surgeries early in his Wisconsin career. But he overcame those injury concerns and has largely stayed healthy in the NFL, though he battled nagging groin, hip, and knee issues in 2021.
It’s hard to fault the NFL too much for their advice for Watt to stay in school. He was just a one-year starter and another year probably would’ve boosted his draft stock. But Watt is, well, a Watt, and he and JJ are Canton-bound someday.
Again, check out the entire podcast for a great interview with Watt, who shows his lighter side and shares some fantastic stories.