What does the reigning Defensive Player of the Year have to do to get some love these days?
Apparently, not only does OLB T.J. Watt need to tie the single-season sack record set by Michael Strahan back in 2001, he needs to blow it out of the water to be named the NFL’s best edge rusher.
Brandon Thorn of Trench Warfare recently published his top 40 defensive linemen entering the 2022 season, which included 25 edge rushers and 15 interior defensive linemen. When it came time to break down the edge rushers, Watt’s name wasn’t at the #1 spot. He wasn’t even in the top three, as Thorn put him #4 in his rankings.
“The one slight knock on Watt is that he is much more siloed to playing on the left side of the defense, meaning he gets to face right tackles more than Garrett and the Bosa brothers, who impact the game on a comparable level from more alignments,” Thorn said on Watt’s ranking. “Given that right tackle is a much weaker position top to bottom than left tackle, Watt is able to feast on lesser competition more often compared to the other players mentioned above him.”
To Thorn’s credit, he did mention that Watt’s impact is undeniable given his impressive pressure percentage (16.2%), his explosive get-off, as well as the fact that he tied the single-season sack record in 2021 while racking up the most sacks in the NFL since 2018 (60). Still, despite all that Watt has accomplished in his last few seasons, Thorn ranks him behind Myles Garrett and both the Bosa brothers due to the fact that he lines up over the RT a majority of the time. While traditionally NFL offenses often put their best pass protector at left tackle to protect the QB’s blind side, both tackle spots are expected to provide the necessary protection against opposing pass rushers to keep the pocket clean.
Watt isn’t the first example of NFL defenses sticking their best pass rusher on the left side to exploit matchups. The Bears used Khalil Mack for years on the left side of the defense as did the Broncos with Von Miller, putting their best pass rusher in position to win and make an impact play on the QB. Should Watt be discredited for Pittsburgh’s choice to utilize him in such a way where he can be a literal game-wrecker like we saw last season? I personally don’t think so, and if NFL teams are upset about it, they should choose to put their best tackle on the right side to combat this trend going forward.
Cam Heyward didn’t get much love from Thorn either in his IDL rankings at #4, behind Aaron Donald, Chris Jones, and Jonathan Allen. While Donald deservingly takes the top spot on this list, Heyward is coming off one of his best seasons as a pro, posting 89 total stops, 15 TFLs, ten sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and nine PBUs while having to play 955 defensive snaps last season (82%) due to the lack of talent next to him along the defensive line. Teams were able to key on him specifically with Tyson Alualu and Stephon Tuitt lost for the season, but he still managed to be a game-wrecker up front. For context, Heyward bested both Allen and Jones in total tackles, TFLs, sacks, and pass deflections at the defensive line position in 2021.
It’s not like Thorn is trying to say that both Watt and Heyward aren’t two of the best in the league at their respective positions. However, it does seem like he is underselling the impact both defenders have based on their performance and production. A reason why both Watt and Heyward are outside of the top three at EDGE and DL likely ties to Pittsburgh’s porous run defense last season that left a bad taste in the months of many that would watch it. Hopefully with an improved run stopping unit in 2022, Watt and Heyward will be given the credit they deserve as two of the best in the business.