When compiling a list of the top edge rushers across the NFL landscape, the Steelers’ star T.J. Watt has to be at, or near the top right? That’s been my thought process for some time now, and back at the NFL Honors this past February, Watt was finally given his due, as he took home the Defensive Player of the Year Award for what should’ve been his second straight time winning it. In 2020, despite having better stats in virtually every category, Watt came in second to Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald in what many, myself included, thought was nothing more than a popularity contest, much like the Pro Bowl voting has become.
However, last year after tying the single-season sack record of 22.5 that’s stood since Michael Strahan set it back in 2001, he finally got his due. Entering the upcoming season, he’s definitely getting more attention nationally as well, and count NFL.com Analyst and former Patriots standout pass rusher Willie McGinest among those on notice. He just compiled his list of the top 10 edge rushers as we enter 2022, factoring in not only sacks, but other staples of being a good pass rusher, like QB hits, pressures and game-changing plays. McGinest has 86 career sacks to his name, along with an NFL record 16 career postseason sacks, so he knows a thing or two about getting after QBs.
To no surprise, McGinest had Watt atop his list, citing the otherworldly five-year span he’s just put forth, recording the third-most sacks in that time frame with 72, which trails only big brother J.J.’s 74.5 and the great Reggie White’s 81. One could assume had Watt not missed two full games, and halves of several others, not only would the single-season record be solely his, but he would’ve also surpassed big brother in these rankings.
“He’s extremely explosive and his relentless motor is unmatched, making him the best defensive player on the field more often than not,” McGinest wrote on NFL.com. “The Steelers’ defense struggled last season, ranking outside of the top 20 in scoring and total yards allowed after finishing third in each category in 2020. That is no reflection of Watt’s effort, though. Rather, it further proves that one great defensive player — no matter how disruptive he might be — needs more playmakers around him, unlike offenses that rank atop the league thanks in large part to a playmaking quarterback.”
Struggled last season was putting it mildly, as despite leading the league in sacks for the fifth-straight season, the run defense ranked dead last in the league, due to a myriad of injuries along the defensive line. Several names were added in free agency to help patch up the D, including Larry Ogunjobi, Myles Jack and Levi Wallace. The return of nose tackle Tyson Alualu will help, as will the contributions of second-year player Isaiahh Loudermilk and rookie third-rounder DeMarvin Leal. The defense will need to be the linchpin of this team early on, as the offense adjusts to breaking in a new QB other than Ben Roethlisberger. Make no mistake though, Watt is the straw that stirs the drink for the unit, and it’ll go as far as he takes them.
“Whether he gets more help from his teammates or not, Watt should have another brilliant campaign if he stays healthy, thanks to his pure talent and elite skill set.”