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Steelers select T.J. Watt in 2017 NFL Draft

T.J. Watt isn’t the sort of player that typically gets drafted in the first round. He had only one year of major production in college. He had only played defense for two years. If anything, coming into the draft, he was known more for having a famous brother, J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, than for his own exploits. The former Wisconsin star linebacker had a long way to go in carving out an identity for himself that is independent of his brother. To do that, he would have to play great football on a great team. That isn’t exactly common for rookie defenders.

But Watt found the perfect home last April when he was selected by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He moved right into a starting outside linebacker job and produced incredible numbers. Seven stats. Over 50 tackles. An interception. Seven passes defensed. Watt did it all for a team that went 13-3 and hosted a Divisional Round playoff game. No matter what the awards said, he was the best defensive rookie of the 2017 season and he did it on a team that could have won the Super Bowl. And it all started last April, when Jerome Bettis announced that the team was taking the linebacker at No. 30 in the NFL Draft.

Watt’s fame is his own now. With his older brother playing in only eight games over the past two seasons and back injuries sapping much of his effectiveness, the Steelers may have the best Watt in all of football right now. If you’d have told Steelers fans that would be the case a year ago, they simply wouldn’t have believed it. But it’s all due to the incredible performance of a young defender who has worked hard to fit into the Steelers’ culture and contribute in any way that was asked of him. The Steelers knocked it out of the park at linebacker once again.

Of course, that shouldn’t be a surprise given their history. Half of the team’s first round picks this decade, Maurkice Pouncey, Cameron Heyward, David DeCastro and Ryan Shazier, have become Pro Bowl players. Watt will be joining them in the not-too-distant future. As the Steelers continue to seek out talent at the top of the draft, ideally to fill in for the injured Shazier this season, their history of drafting and developing players like Watt sends a message. If the Steelers draft someone in the first round, he is going to be a productive player. End of discussion.

T.J. Watt wants to be a vocal leader in 2018

T.J. Watt is ready to take on a more vocal role in Pittsburgh’s defense in 2018.

After spending his rookie season watching and learning from the veterans, the Steelers’ No.1 pick last season wants to be a more vocal part of the team as he enters his second NFL season.

“I’m not learning now,” Watt recently told Steelers.com. “I’m not going to be sitting in the hotel room with Keion (Adams) trying to figure out plays and stuff. I know all the plays, and I have relationships with the players now. I can be a little more vocal. I know who I’m working with out there. I feel like I’m going to be able to take more risks being able to contribute more now that I have more leeway. I feel more comfortable in the system.”

Watt, who finished third on the Steelers with 7.0 sacks during his rookie season, can’t wait to get the 2018 season started.

“I’m more excited than ever to come back for a second year,” Watt said. “Everyone says the offseason is going to fly by. I didn’t have all the Combine training and all that stuff, so it’ll was a little bit of a relief to kind of get away from football for a little bit, but then I got back into training, and am getting ready to go for the season. I’m going to be grinding the whole way. I’m excited.”

Last season, the Steelers’ defense finished first in the NFL in sacks, seventh in scoring, fifth in yards allowed, fifth in pass defense and 10th against the run. The unit was gassed in their playoff loss to Jacksonville, however, as the Steelers gave up 38 points on defense.

“I think we’re making progress,” Steelers’ president Art Rooney II said of his defense, via Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We have a lot of young players on defense. We can get better . . . We need to add people to it, obviously.”

The Steelers did receive several strong individual performances on the defensive side of the ball in 2017. Cam Heyward earned his first Pro Bowl selection after recording a team best 12.0 sacks. Vince Williams enjoyed a solid first season as a starting inside linebacker, recording a career high 8.0 sacks. Watt looks like a star in the making after being the only player in the NFL this season to record at last 7.0 sacks, 50 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble. Ryan Shazier was in the midst of an All-Pro season before going down with a season-ending injury in Pittsburgh’s Week 13 victory over the Bengals.

But Shazier’s injury was too much for the Steelers to overcome, as Pittsburgh allowed an average of 134 yards per game during the final five games of the season. To help overcome the loss of Shazier and Mike Mitchell (who was released by the team last month), the Steelers signed linebacker Jon Bostic and safeties Morgan Burnett and Nat Berhe.

As they have for the previous five drafts, expect Pittsburgh spend it’s early picks on the defensive side of the ball, specifically on the inside linebacker and safety positions. The Steelers, a year after nabbing Joe Haden, may again look to big up a big name defender in free agency, as Pittsburgh wants to erase any holes in their roster heading into what they hope will be a championship-winning season.

“I think we have the pieces to the puzzle, and we know we can compete at the highest level,” Watt said. “We were in so many close games throughout the year that I think we just want to come back and make the margins a little bit bigger. We want to give ourselves a little bit more room. We want to do so many great things, and we know how close we were but at the same time, we do not like the taste it let in our mouths. I think that will drive us all individually and collectively as a group.”

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