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T.J. Watt is a first round pass rushing prospect

JAN 02 Cotton Bowl - Western Michigan v Wisconsin
Photo by Matthew Visinsky/Icon Sportswire

Scouting Notes

T.J. Watt is a first round pass rushing prospect

Back in February I joined Matt Waldman, he of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio fame, to discuss the merits of T.J. Watt as a pass rusher and defensive prospect amid this crop of EDGE Defenders for the 2017 NFL Draft. This sixty minute session came a few weeks removed from conducting my personal film study on Watt; where I came to the conclusion that I’m circling back to today.

T.J. Watt is a first round prospect. (Watt currently stands 30th on my personal 2017 NFL Draft board.)

That initial tweet, from January 6th, came about eight weeks before Watt turned in one of the more impressive NFL Combine performances; a reaffirmation of what I felt I had seen through his film study. Watt, a one year starter as a rush LB with the Badgers; stands out for the nuance that he shows when processing action at the point of attack or in the backfield. The blend of limited starting experience and high end football intelligence speaks to Watt’s film preparations and natural feel for the game. Expanding on these thoughts further, there’s a number of illustrations of active techniques throughout Watt’s 2016 film. Take this rush against the Ohio State Buckeyes for starters:

The utilization of his wingspan here allows for a clean pivot and direct angle to target (QB Barrett). His release off of the line of scrimmage is not the most sudden in the class; but knowing and effectively using a long arm technique (plus the accurate placement of the hand in the center of the chest) is the kind of rush technique you’re going to want to see from pass rushers at the NFL level.

Yet Watt’s best rush isn’t his long arm rush or a speed rush; he’s regularly at his best with a tight push/pull or rip combination when attacking off the left side. Our friend John Owning from FanRag Sports has a perfect example:

The looseness Watt showcases when engaging with tackles who have appropriately framed him in their pass set (meaning they’re engaging him square and with their back directly to their Quarterback) is impressive stuff. He’s highly capable of hinging from the torso and separating the movement of his upper and lower halves. This illustration from Owning shows just how effectively he can minimize his surface area. As a result, when the push/pull forces turn in the Tackle’s frame, there’s minimal space for the Tackle to re-establish his hands and Watt can continue unimpeded to the Quarterback. The move, as you’ll see below, is effective from both side of the line of scrimmage as well.

The shoulder mobility in these counters also features free hinging hips, which allows Watt to work his lower half around the base of Tackles while still engaged in the upper half. Here’s another illustration of that lower half mobility and skill to diminish the inside shoulder while working the hips through contact against the LSU Tigers from the 2016 season opener (Watt’s first start):

It’s a bear of a rush to stop and the fact that Watt can counter off of that rush with a long arm speed rush (he also flashed a handful of nice power rushes against deep setting Tackles) means he has multiple avenues to win as a pass rusher. That repertoire as a second year defensive player is impressive. Add in the fact that this is a high football IQ defender with a film room mentality? Upside here is through the roof. His skilled hand work goes well beyond his counters, however. Watt’s ability to pop and establish himself at the line of scrimmage is some of the most impressive hand work you’ll see out of this year’s crop of rushers. But don’t take my word for it. Here’s what national analyst and former NFL offensive lineman Brian Baldinger has to say:

The extension you see here is worth noting; because Watt is comfortable and effective in stacking blockers with his full wingspan. This awareness of playing away from his frame allows him to shed blocks easily and transition into pursuit, much like you see here on this interior stunt. Watt was featured frequently as an interior stand up rusher and his discipline as a stunt player will regularly create open alleys for teammates before Watt himself transitions into a rush mode. And while Watt’s pass rush productivity (6th most productive rusher in the class with a pressure every 16.4 rushes according to Pro Football Focus) is the central theme of the argument surrounding him as a first round prospect, that doesn’t mean there aren’t instances of this hand work in the other areas of Watt’s game as well. Baldinger brings another strong example of hand usage to the table, this time shedding blocks in run fits:

The upper body strength here is evident in shedding the initial stack from the Right Tackle. Watt finding his way through the remainder of the trash and making a play on the ball carrier is a testament to his football intelligence. Not bad for a second year defensive player. And that, more than anything else, is why you should be excited to hear T.J. Watt’s named called for *your* team on the first night of the 2017 NFL Draft.

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Kyle Crabbs

Kyle Crabbs is the founder/Director of Scouting of NDT Scouting Services, a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and the lead NFL Draft analyst for the FanRag Sports Network.

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