All the T.J. Watt to the Green Bay Packers stuff you’re reading and hearing isn’t just NFL draft noise.
There’s good reason to think general manager Ted Thompson would strongly consider Watt with his first-round pick, No. 29 overall, if Watt is available, and it has nothing to do with Watt being from Wisconsin, or having played in college in Madison, or being J.J. Watt’s younger brother.
People who make a living in the NFL scouting players and teams see the match, too.
There's this, unprompted from an NFL scout this week when asked about pass rushers in this draft: “The guy that has the potential to be really good in (the Packers’) scheme is Watt.”
And this from a scout for an AFC team as he pondered the Packers already having Clay Matthews and Nick Perry as their starting outside linebackers:
“I don’t have to make (Watt) a full-time starter from Day 1, I can let him develop. Toward the end of the year he’s playing a lot more, he’s more polished, he’s fresh. I’ve got three rushers. I could see that fit.”
Let’s start with the caveat: Following are evaluations of only two scouts. Rest assured, opinions vary about Watt from team to team, and from scouts and coaches within teams.
All that matters for the Packers is the opinion of one person: Thompson. Even if a large majority of teams view a player similarly, Thompson could see things differently. It happens all the time. Thompson might love Watt at No. 29. Or he might have eliminated him as a first-rounder.
Only Thompson knows for sure, and he keeps close counsel.
For the record, both scouts have early second-round grades on Watt. But that doesn’t exclude him as a possible late first-round pick even in their minds.
When teams set up their draft boards, they usually have somewhere from 16 to maybe 22 first-round grades. Different teams have different players in that group, so there’s an OK chance a player with a first-round grade will be available for a given club even at the bottom of the round. But they all could be off the board, too, which means drafting someone with a second-round grade. Not that any GM ever would admit publicly he did that.
Regardless, Watt makes sense for the Packers because of position fit and need. He has the measurables of an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dom Capers' 3-4 scheme, and he played the position at Wisconsin. Also, the Packers badly need to upgrade the pass rush of a defense that finished last season No. 26 in defensive passer rating. Even if Matthews finally stays healthy enough to perform at a high level all season, he turns 31 next month. I see this as their greatest of several immediate needs. The time to strike is now.
The question with Watt is mainly his upside. He moved from tight end to outside linebacker only two years ago, played minimally in 2015, then improved noticeably from beginning to end of last season. He finished with 11½ sacks in 2016.
Watt’s workout at the NFL scouting combine surprised scouts who questioned his athleticism based on game videotape at Wisconsin.
According to MockDraftable’s data that goes back to the 1999 combine, Watt’s 40 time (4.69 seconds) was only a little above average for an outside linebacker and his bench press (21 reps) was slightly below average. But his other tests for athleticism stood out: His three-cone drill (6.79 seconds) was in the 90th percentile, short shuttle (4.13 seconds) 84th percentile, broad jump (128 inches) 95th percentile and vertical jump (37 inches) 82nd percentile.
He also has good length (6-feet-4½, 93rd percentile) and weight (252 pounds, 89th percentile).
Those numbers are comparable to Matthews, the No. 26 pick overall in 2009: Matthews had the slightly better 40 (4.67 seconds to 4.69); Watt was a little better in the three-cone (6.79 seconds to 6.90), short shuttle (4.13 seconds to 4.18) and vertical (37 inches to 35 ½), and a lot better in the broad jump (128 inches to 121).
So is Watt as good a prospect as Matthews coming out? Neither scout went that far.
“You can see Matthews retreat sometimes (against the run), when people get on him he can retreat,” one said. “I think (Watt) can hang in there a little bit better at the point of attack. I don’t think he has the edge-rush ability Matthews has. I don’t know that he’s going to win the corner every single time like Matthews does. That’s where I see the difference.”
DOUGHERTY: Thompson's top hits, awful misses
Said the other: “Their numbers are similar in terms of athleticism. To me, Clay was a lot more of an explosive athlete as far as playing the game, run, chase, physicalness, all that stuff. Then he got going (in the NFL) coming off the edge. I don’t think Watt is as athletic, but in his own way he’d still bring the ability to pressure the quarterback to the table."
Watt is one of several outside rushers who could be on Thompson’s radar for the first round. Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett and Temple’s late-rising Haason Reddick almost surely will be gone by No. 29. Chances are UCLA’s Takkarist McKinley won’t make it there either, unless concerns about his post-surgical shoulder push him down the board.
But Missouri’s Charles Harris could be on the board, and Houston’s Tyus Bowser and Auburn's Carl Lawson probably will be. From what I can tell, Michigan’s Taco Charlton, another late first-round prospect, is a little too much of a defensive line ‘tweener (277 pounds) to fit as an outside linebacker in the Packers’ 3-4, though you never know how Thompson might see it.
One of the scouts ranked them as 3-4 prospects, in order, Harris, Watt, Bowser, Lawson.
“I think Watt will be good,” one of the scouts said. “I don’t know how great he’ll be.”
The other scout predicted Harris will be better than Watt as a rookie, but he sees more long term in Watt.
“Watt’s got such a natural slither to him,” the scout said. “When he starts perfecting those hand moves, I think he’ll rise immensely, I think he has a tremendous amount of potential. It’s just a matter of mixing in (added) strength and playing time and bringing him along the right way. I think he’ll surprise you."
firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @PeteDougherty.