INDIANAPOLIS - At a few minutes shy of 4 p.m. Saturday, a member of the NFL public relations staff swapped the name placards at podiums and tables around the room in preparation for the next wave of draft prospects.
When he reached Podium 7, where a defensive lineman had spoken a few minutes prior, the man folded the name “T.J. Watt” over the ledge next to the corresponding microphone, and soon enough the former Wisconsin outside linebacker appeared.
But after 10 minutes of questions that were more about Watt’s family than anything else, the placard might have been more accurate had it read “J.J. Watt’s Little Brother.”
“I feel like early on when J.J. first started blowing up I didn’t know how to handle it,” Watt said at the scouting combine. “Now definitely I love it. My brother is the best defensive player to ever play the game in my opinion. Obviously I’m biased, but when you play the sport of football and you have your role model, the person you look up to, a phone call away or a text away it’s special. And he does it so well and so right that I’m just trying to replicate what he does.”
Replicating his brother, the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year, would begin with sneaking into the first round of next month’s draft. Watt, who decided to leave school early, was a one-year starter for the Badgers after converting from tight end earlier in his career. He finished the 2016 season with 63 tackles (15½ for loss), 11½ sacks, one interception and first-team All-America honors from both ESPN and Sports Illustrated.
CAPSULES: 2017 NFL Draft Outlook
Here in Indianapolis, where Watt measured 6-feet-4-inches and 252 pounds, scouts and personnel executives are enamored with his genes, motor and potential after he played defense for fewer than two full years. If he tests well, matching his brother as a first-round pick is a very real possibility.
“I would love to finish my education at Wisconsin,” Watt said. “I love Wisconsin, I love the fans, I love my teammates there as well. I keep in touch daily with them. I wanted to win a national championship just like anyone else in college football.
“But at the same time I felt like I have a great support system, this is what I’ve been wanting to do since I was a little kid, and the opportunity was finally realistic. I’ve always wanted to play in the NFL, but obviously it wasn’t a realistic option until I played at a high level in college. And once that opportunity came I couldn’t say no.”
Watt’s borderline first-round grade dovetails nicely with the Green Bay Packers’ draft position at No. 29 overall, some 18 picks later than when the Houston Texans selected his brother in 2011. General manager Ted Thompson had enough interest in Watt to schedule a formal meeting this week in Indianapolis, and Watt spoke glowingly of Wisconsin’s regular-season opener in Lambeau Field last season.
The Packers’ interest in Watt could surge depending on what happens in free agency, which begins next week. Outside linebackers Julius Peppers, Datone Jones and Nick Perry are all unrestricted free agents. What had been an overstocked cupboard for much of the year could turn barren in a hurry.
In that scenario, Watt’s position becomes arguably the No. 1 priority for Thompson as he enters the draft.
“The No. 1 thing I tell teams is I’m just scratching the surface,” Watt said. “I’ve only played defense for 18 or 20 months, so if I can do all the things I did this past year, what can I do when I’m under the tutelage of an NFL coach? But obviously lack of film, lack of experience is a point that’s come across, but I feel like it’s not a problem at all with my work ethic, and like I said with the bloodlines and all that.
“Obviously (J.J.) has put together a really good game plan of how to do it and he’s done it really well for himself and really well for the whole state of Wisconsin and the town of Pewaukee where we grew up in. He kind of gave me the blueprint of how to do it. Obviously he’s done really good things, and I’m going to try to follow in his footsteps but blaze my own trail at the same time.”
Watt shared the combine experience with former Wisconsin teammate and fellow outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who measured 6-3⅜ and 247 pounds. Biegel was named second-team All-Big Ten by the coaches last season after finishing with 44 tackles (6 for loss) and four sacks.
Though he is projected as a middle-round pick, Biegel spoke with extreme confidence during his interview session at the combine.
“I would say that I’m a first-round type of player and any team that doesn’t get me in the first round is getting a steal on me,” Biegel said. “And what I mean by that is by my professionalism, how I go about my business, my work ethic and my upside. I think definitely I’m a first-round talent and I think a team would get a steal on me if they don’t draft me there.”