Packers 2017 Draft: Why T.J. Watt is a first-round option

Nov 26, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker T.J. Watt (42) celebrates following a sack during the second quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 26, 2016; Madison, WI, USA; Wisconsin Badgers linebacker T.J. Watt (42) celebrates following a sack during the second quarter against the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Camp Randall Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports /

Selecting T.J. Watt at No. 29 might send the state of Wisconsin into a frenzy, but the former Badger might be the missing piece the Green Bay Packers pass rush needs.

Along with adding talent to the cornerback position, bolstering an ailing pass rush is a major offseason priority for the Green Bay Packers.

Looking at the numbers alone and you’d think Green Bay’s pass rush is amongst the league’s best. With 40 sacks, the Packers were tied for sixth in the NFL. But you have to dig much deeper to fully understand the situation.

Of those 40 sacks, 11 belonged to Nick Perry, a free-agent-to-be. It was easily the best year of an otherwise underwhelming career for the former first-round pick, one plagued by injuries. Can he stay healthy? Other than being forced to play with a giant club on a broken hand, Perry avoided major injury in 2016.

Seven-and-a-half sacks came courtesy of Julius Peppers, another free agent. Whether Peppers decides to retire or not is yet to be seen, but the odds on a return to Green Bay appear slim at best.

Fellow free agents, Micah Hyde and Datone Jones, notched a sack each. That leaves just 19.5 sacks to players under contract through 2017. It’s likely at least a couple of the four names mentioned will be back in Green Bay, but that doesn’t lessen the need to find another pass rusher.

The development of last year’s third-round pick Kyler Fackrell will be key, as will a return-to-form for Clay Matthews, whose play regressed after a slew of injuries in 2016. Still, it’d be a risky move to bank on either coming to fruition.

Enter T.J. Watt, a potential first-round target for the Packers.

Watt he can bring to Green Bay

Watt, the younger brother of three-time defensive player of the year and four-time first-team All-Pro J.J., enters the draft with plenty of buzz. And while he may never match the elite level of his superstar sibling, there’s a lot to like about Watt’s game.

T.J. is a tremendous athlete and defends both the run and pass at a high level. Quick off the snap and using his hands to good effect, Watt posted 11.5 sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss in 2016, his first full season as a starter.

Like J.J., T.J. plays every down as if it’s his last. Emily Kaplan of The MMQB wrote a great piece on him last October. It’s perfectly clear just by reading the article just how obsessed T.J. is with football, just as we see from J.J. in Houston.

"“Watt claims he has few interests other than football. “I don’t go out on weekends,” he says. “After games, I’ll literally sit in my apartment and watch football. I have it instilled in me from my brothers, J.J. especially, minimal gains and marginal gains, you can be one percent better. I honestly believe that if I stay in, there’s probably a player from Michigan State or Ohio State going out drinking beer, and I have to be getting better than him.””"

That’s the kind of character you want in the locker room. One who spends every breathing moment wanting to become a better football player. And he may not find a better coach of the intricacies of rushing the passer than an older bro who put up 74.5 sacks in five years between 2011 and 2015 for the Texans.

Watt needs to hit the weight room once he arrives in the NFL, but he has the potential to become an excellent outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme, which makes him ideal for the Packers.

Pair the Wisconsin Badger with a re-signed Nick Perry, a healthy Clay Matthews, a developing Kyler Fackrell, and maybe another rookie and Green Bay would have the foundations of a strong pass rush.

The Packers’ first pick?

Watt is expected to be taken off the board either late in the first round or early in the second. The Packers would likely need to make him their first-round draft choice as he may not be there for them at the bottom of the second.

A factor to consider is his lack of experience and injury history. Watt made the transition from tight end to outside linebacker in the summer of 2015, and only completed one full season as a starter.

Watt blew out his right knee in 2014 and sat out all season, and then injured his left knee the following spring, requiring surgery. But after earning a starting job in 2016, Watt didn’t look back.

Still, it’s easy to see why NFL teams might be at least a little concerned. A history of knee injuries and a lack of experience means his future team will be banking on potential. But that potential is clear for all to see.

Maybe Ted Thompson is ready to roll the dice, and perhaps he plans on keeping the former Badger in Wisconsin.

Next: Packers pre-combine seven-round mock draft