For the next month, we’ll be looking at prospects in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft from a decidedly Cowboys point of view. Taking the Cowboys current personnel, draft position, scheme, and needs into consideration; defensive line, linebacker, defensive backs, as well as complementary offensive pieces at tight end and right tackle, we hope to profile the majority of the potential prospects that could realistically end up as Cowboys within the first two rounds. Once the “official visits” start to leak we’ll add prospects that are possibilities in the later rounds.
Today’s Prospect - (Reported pre-draft visitor)
#42 - T.J. Watt - Defensive End/Linebacker - Wisconsin - 6-4, 252
Games Watched: Ohio St., Iowa, Minnesota, Michigan St., LSU
Pros: Relentless player with large, powerful hands, shows advanced hand usage when taking on linemen. High-effort, disciplined player who shows an understanding of how to play “assignment sound”, looks to have good instincts/football intelligence overall. Very reliable tackler. Shows excellent quickness and agility when coming on a stunt/twist game or shooting gaps, he is very effective and displays good feel on stunts and twists. Shows some pass-rush technique (rip move, inside counter move) but it’s not very refined. Especially “slippery” on inside counter moves against both the run and pass. Does a nice job of maintaining contact balance once engaged with linemen. Impressive back-side pursuit in the run game. Usually does a good enough job of being physical and setting the edge against the run, particularly against tight ends, but he does get washed out/hooked by linemen a bit too often. Good straight line speed for his size, although change of direction is not always smooth and is somewhat limited. Impressive Combine performance.
Cons: Played as a pure 3-4 OLB in college, he was always standing up and I never once saw him with his hand on the ground. Has a narrow base and seems to lack lower body strength, not sure he has the frame to add much more weight without sacrificing athleticism. Lacks ideal bulk for a full-time 4-3 DE. Often uses a running start to gain an advantage in his pass-rush, which makes sense given how he was used as a 3-4 OLB, but that isn’t something that he can do as a 4-3 DE. Looks more like a “blitzer” than a pure edge rusher due to a lack of explosiveness, natural bend, and suddenness despite impressive Combine testing. One-year wonder? Suffered injuries to both knees, one of which kept him out for the entire 2014 season. Doesn’t show a whole lot of variety in his pass-rush technique, that will need to be developed and refined at the next level. Not ready to hold up in the run game as a full-time DE in the NFL.
Conclusion: Watt is a natural 3-4 OLB prospect, although unlike many players who transition to that position once they enter the league, he never played with his hand down in college. That has to be cause for concern for teams who are evaluating Watt as a potential 4-3 DE, especially given his lack of natural explosiveness and bend around the edge. While 6-4, 252 is plenty acceptable for a weak-side 4-3 DE, you don’t see the pure edge-rushing ability or power at the point of attack that would make him an ideal fit in that position full-time.
His advanced hand usage, football intelligence, quickness on stunts/twists, and general high-effort play are very intriguing, although I think he may be a better fit in a 4-3 as a strongside linebacker in base packages who you use as a movable “chess piece” in pass-rushing situations; sometimes with his hand down on the edge in a pure DE role, other times you have him standing up where you can bring him from different positions/angles.
This is the same type of role that Von Miller played early in his career in Denver before they switched to a 3-4, and is similar to the role that Anthony Barr currently plays with the Vikings. It may not be Watt’s ideal position (3-4 OLB would be), but I do think it is the one that he has the best chance of success at in a 4-3. This is not a player you want out there on an island against 315 lb. offensive tackles trying to capture the edge and defend the run for 40-50 plays a game, at least early on in his career. It is certainly possible that he could become a full-time DE after a year or two of learning technique, getting used to playing with his hand on the ground, and adding 5-10 lbs.
Overall there is a lot to like with Watt but right now his schematic fit is a bit questionable. I think he could be a really dynamic weapon if moved around and used in creative ways in pass-rushing situations, but his fit in base packages isn’t ideal. If the Cowboys were still running a 3-4 I’d have no reservations with taking him in the first round at all, but his potential may not be maximized in a 4-3. He is definitely in the conversation at 28, but I would need to know what plan the coaching staff has for him before being fully on-board.
I do not have access to coach’s film or anything of that nature, I just watch plenty of football (television broadcast version) and go off what I see out of a prospect.
Special thanks to DraftBreakdown for posting the videos that help provide a more in-depth look at this year’s prospects.