But the younger Watt carved his own path with the Badgers, developing from bench-riding tight end into All-American linebacker. On Thursday, he added another accomplishment — first-round NFL draft pick.
The Steelers snapped up the rangy defender with the 30th selection of the 2017 NFL draft. He’s Wisconsin’s sixth first-round pick since 2011.
Like his brother, Watt rose from unheralded high school player to game-changer in Madison. His rich bloodlines helped boost his recruiting stock — he was a three-star athlete — and made him a no-brainer pickup for the Badgers back in 2013. A knee injury kept him off the field in 2014, but it also presented an opportunity — coach Paul Chryst moved him from tight end to linebacker to help bolster a unit that had lost Chris Borland the year before and was set to lose Joe Schobert the following season.
He showed flashes at the position as a sophomore, but only recorded seven tackles in eight games thanks to a combination of injury and inexperience. That set the foundation for a junior season worthy of the Watt surname.
T.J. Watt Scouting Report
“Looks the part. Has NFL pedigree with both older brothers in the NFL. Has great length. Is a plus athlete who tested very well in Indianapolis. Has shown ability to use hands to defeat blockers. Has the lower-body flexibility to bend around the corner. Has shown hip fluidity in coverage. Makes creative plays against the run. Made big plays in big games.” — Read More at Bucky’s 5th Quarter
The young defender saved his best for the Badgers’ most important games, playing a huge role for a team that won three games against top-10 competition in 2016. Watt exploded for 2.5 sacks against then-No. 8 Michigan State, had 11 tackles, including a pair for losses, against then-No. 4 Michigan, and added a sack and forced fumble in the Big Ten Championship Game against then-No. 7 Penn State.
His penchant for big plays — and last name — made him something of a known commodity, but his showing at the NFL combine made him a first-round pick. Watt rated out among the event’s top linebackers across five different drills, ranging from vertical leap to the 3-cone drill. His 128-inch broad jump was longer than top tailback prospects like Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey. His 20-yard shuttle outclassed most of the Combine’s wide receivers.
What does T.J. Watt bring to the Steelers?
That freak athleticism goes a long way in explaining his success on the field. Watt is a three-down linebacker who can chase down quarterbacks around the edge or shoot gaps between blockers. At Wisconsin, he’d roam throughout the backfield to find weak points in blocking schemes, attacking to create havoc so he or his teammates could capitalize. Here’s an example of that cerebral pre-snap planning, courtesy of the Big Ten Network.
He also has the flexibility to shadow tight ends or drop into zone coverage, notching four passes defended and a pick-six last fall. Solid fundamentals — strong hits at the point of contact and good wrapping of ball carriers — make him a sound tackler. That, combined with his ability to attack and shed blockers, should make him the kind of defensive player whose name is called over the PA several times each game.
What are his weaknesses?
Watt doesn’t present the kind of DE/OLB flexibility some of his fellow prospects in the class of 2017 do, though he could be asked to move up to the line of scrimmage in stretches as a pro. With just one full season of college football under his belt, questions still remain about his ability to make a sustainable impact — especially against a higher level of competition.
What does he bring to the Steelers?
Watt joins a linebacking corps that includes Ryan Shazier, James Harrison and Bud Dupree. The Steelers’ pass rush ranked ninth in 2016 with 38 sacks, and Watt should help bolster it.
And the nice thing is, the Watt brothers will get to spend Christmas Day together. The Steelers and Texans face off in Week 16 in Houston.
J.J. Watt tells Steelers' Antonio Brown to treat brother T.J. like rookie
PITTSBURGH -- Apparently two NFL superstars could now be plotting against Pittsburgh Steelers first-round pick T.J. Watt.
Watt's brother, Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt, said he texted Steelers receiver Antonio Brown with ways to treat T.J. like a rookie.
"Look over my brother, make sure to haze him a little extra for me," Watt said about his exchange with Brown. They were teammates at Central Michigan before Watt transferred to Wisconsin, where T.J. also played.
T.J. became the Steelers' fifth consecutive defensive player selected in the first round when the franchise took him 30th overall Thursday night. In his first full season as a defensive starter, Watt recorded 11.5 sacks and earned second-team All-America honors. The Watt brothers are Wisconsin's two most recent first-round picks on defense. Watt went 11th overall to Houston in 2011.
Speaking on conference call with Pittsburgh media, J.J. said his brother "plays with so much energy and passion" and will "only get better."
"He has such good instincts, such a good nose for the ball -- he's a natural playmaker," Watt said. "He's always been a natural athlete. He's always been a little bit more smooth [an athlete] than I was. He can make some moves and has natural abilities that didn't necessarily come as easily as it comes to me. But I don't want to say natural because I've seen the work. He plays the game with so much joy, and it's fun to watch."
T.J., 22, said he's ecstatic to play for a storied Steelers franchise and plans to emerge from his brother's large shadow on his own merit. General manager Kevin Colbert sensed Watt was his own man during the pre-draft process.
NFL success has brought the brothers closer together, J.J., 28, said. Derek, 24, is a fullback for the Los Angeles Chargers.
"We realize we can use it to each other's advantage, appreciate the competition and the fun that we bring in each other's lives," J.J. said. "It's a blast to watch each other grow."
Steelers' top pick T.J. Watt overcomes injuries to follow brothers to NFL
As the oldest brother on a family tree that now counts three NFL members, J.J. Watt was elated to see 22-year-old T.J. drafted in the first round Thursday night by the Steelers.
If you're looking for the most gratifying moment, that came nearly two years earlier.
T.J. Watt, then a redshirt sophomore at Wisconsin, was recovering from a second knee surgery — one on each leg — and facing the prospect he might never follow in the football footsteps of J.J., the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, and middle brother Derek, a fullback with the Los Angeles Chargers.
“Obviously, when he was going through that time in his life, it was a very, very difficult time,” J.J. Watt said Friday on a conference call. “When you hear him on the phone and he's crying after his second injury, and all you can hear in his voice is how badly he wants to play football and how tough of a time it was ... to persevere and overcome adversity, these are the times that really will make you stronger in the end.
“That's the part I'm most proud of for him, that after all that, the ability to come out of that and perform so strongly when it would have been very easy to give up and say, ‘Maybe this just isn't for me. Maybe it wasn't meant to be.' ”
After being asked to switch positions –- another obstacle he had to overcome –- T.J. Watt ascended so quickly as an outside linebacker at Wisconsin that the Steelers didn't hesitate to select him with the No. 30 overall draft pick.
“He has worked so hard, and he's been through a lot,” J.J. said. “He's so deserving.”
Following his senior year at Pewaukee (Wisc.) High School, T.J. matriculated to Wisconsin, just like his older brothers. After redshirting as a freshman, Watt had a series of injuries to his knees. J.J. used his Houston Texans connections to get Walt Lowe, the team physician, to perform surgery. In spring practice in 2015, Watt injured his left knee, also requiring another surgery by Lowe.
Watt said his injury was related to a genetic condition.
“I knew I would be suspectible again if I didn't have surgery,” Watt said.
Even at his lowest point, Watt said he didn't think his football career was over.
“Maybe it might have crept in the back of my mind after the second injury, but I truly don't think so,” Watt said. “This is what I was born to do, and I've believed that since a really, really young age.”
Watt returned that summer, but new coach Paul Chryst, fresh from leaving Pitt, asked him about switching to defense. Watt was recruited as a tight end.
Again, Watt turned to his oldest brother, who started as a tight end at Central Michigan before transferring and walking on at Wisconsin as a defensive end.
“One thing I told T.J.: The best part about defense is you get to control your own destiny on every play,” J.J.said. “You don't have to wait for somebody to throw you the ball. You just get to go out there and make plays.”
Watt embraced the change but because of his injuries, he hadn't played in a game in nearly three years, since late in his senior high school season. In 2015, as a reserve linebacker in Wisconsin's 3-4 scheme, Watt contributing eight tackles, three pass breakups and no sacks while playing in all 13 games.
Watt, though, was revitalized by his return to football. It was after the second injury and surgery that he dedicated himself to recapturing his love for the sport.
“I finally realized how important the game is to me because it has been taken away from me twice,” he said. “I truly love the process of football. I'm not just a gamer. I love practice. I love working out. I love all the little details of football, and being injured and sitting out for an extended period of time taught me those values.”
Watt opened eyes in the 2016 season opener against LSU. Watt had seven tackles –- one fewer than the entire 2015 season –- and made a key stop of LSU running back Leonard Fournette on a fourth-and-1.
“I felt like it put me on the map a little bit,” Watt said.
It was while watching that game that Steelers coach Mike Tomlin started envisioning a future for Watt in black and gold.
Watt finished the season with 63 tackles (15 1⁄2 for loss) and 11 1⁄2 sacks.
“I think the myriad of things they asked him to do within that scheme made it an easy evaluation,” Tomlin said. “You see him come off the edge. You see him drop into coverage and cover people. You see him work out of a rover front where he is floating over and around the ball in a similar way that we ask our guys to play.
“All of the things that he would be asked to do here, we've seen him do on Wisconsin tape, and we've seen him do very well.”
Now, Watt will be tasked with carrying the family torch amid the ultimate comparisons to his older siblings. He welcomes the challenge.
“This,” Watt said, “is just the beginning.”