Dougherty: Too soon to label passing on T.J. Watt a mistake

Pete Dougherty
Packers News
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Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) plays against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 8, 2017, in Pittsburgh.

In a year or so, we probably can answer the burning question from the Green Bay Packers’ 2017 draft: Was Ted Thompson right to pick Kevin King instead of T.J. Watt?

Watt, the Wisconsin favorite son, is having the better rookie season, that’s for sure. But if you’ve already put this on the mistake side of Thompson’s ledger, you’re jumping the gun. The time to make that call is late next season or in 2019. Things could change drastically between now and then.

But with the two lining up on the same field for the first time when the Packers play the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night, this is as good a time as any to look back at the Packers general manager's choice.

One conclusion I draw is that he did something un-Ted Thompson-like: He went for upside instead of safe with his first pick. Thompson’s history, going all the way back to A.J. Hawk over Vernon Davis in 2006, had been to play it safe with his top selection.

“If you look at it athletically it’s King,” said a personnel scout for an NFC team this week. “If you look at it from a positional attribute and passion for the game, it might have been Watt.”

If you’ll remember back to last April, Thompson needed a cornerback and a pass rusher in the worst way. I’d have ranked them equally if not had rusher as 1A to cornerback’s 1B. Thompson’s picks – he didn’t take an outside rusher until the fourth round – says he had cornerback higher.

Regardless, when pick No. 29 came up, King and Watt were the most viable remaining players at the Packers’ most viable positions. Florida State halfback Dalvin Cook was available as a dark horse as well.

King had risen from maybe a third-round prospect to a possible late first-rounder because of an exceptional workout to go with his exceptional size (6-3 on the nose).

That kind of height is rare in a cornerback. Of all the cornerbacks going back to the 1999 NFL scouting combine, only three measured taller than King: Lenny Walls (6-4 ¼) in 2002, Brandon Browner (6-3 ½) in 2005 and Sean Smith (6-3 ½) in ’09.

Not exactly a who’s who for cornerback play.

Unlike them, King tested athletically like he was under 6 feet. His fastest 40 electronic time was 4.43 seconds, which ranked in the 72nd percentile among cornerbacks since ’99. In short-area quickness he was even better: the 96th percentile in the three-cone (6.56 seconds) and short-shuttle (3.89 seconds) drills, and the 88th percentile for vertical jump (39 ½ inches).

He was a talent pick all the way.

Watt didn’t lack upside – he’d only moved from tight end to 3-4 outside linebacker in 2015.  He also had good height (6-4 ½) and length (33 ½-inch arms, 11-inch hands) for his position, ran a decent 40 (4.69 seconds) and among linebackers going back to ’99 ranked in the 82nd percentile in vertical jump (37 inches), the 90th percentile in the three cone (6.79 seconds) and 84th percentile in the short shuttle (4.13 seconds).

Those are good numbers but not startling like King’s. He’d also produced last season (11 ½ sacks) and displayed the same hunger and eagerness for the game as his famous brother, J.J. Watt. He would have been the safer and more NFL-ready pick.

As things have played out, Watt definitely was more NFL ready.

Selected by the Steelers with the pick after Thompson traded out of No. 29, Watt is on the radar for NFL defensive rookie of the year. His four sacks is tied for third among rookies, behind Cincinnati’s Carl Lawson (5 ½) and Philadelphia’s Derek Barnett (4 ½). Watt also has an interception and five pass breakups.

He has started since opening day, missed one game (groin injury) and played about three-quarters of his team’s defensive snaps (455, or 73.4 percent). Besides the sacks, he has been decent in zone coverage in part because his height and length make him tough to throw over.

“I think he has a chance to be a better player than most people do,” a scout for another team said. “His athleticism kind of jumps out at you. … He’s still wired right to drop in space and has some good instincts.”

King has started five of his eight games, has no interceptions and has broken up four passes. He has missed time because of a shoulder injury that dates to college at the University of Washington and has played about half the Packers’ defensive snaps (343, or 52.8 percent). The shoulder has him on the Packers’ injury report this week, but he was listed as a full participant in practice Thursday and Friday, which is a strong sign he’ll play Sunday.

What has stood out in King’s rookie season is his hard tackling on short passes and runs. His coverage has been spotty, and he has tended to give up too much cushion at the snap.

“The one thing he does extremely well is play the ball,” a third scout said. “But he’s not necessarily a quick-twitch guy and isn’t physical for his size.”

To get a feel for how experts around the league viewed Thompson’s decision to pass on Watt at 29, trade back and take King at 33, I called four scouts from NFL teams to see what they’d have done if in Thompson’s shoes. Three said they’d have drafted King, too.

“It’s hard to find 6-foot plus corners that can run,” one said. “So I’d probably do the corner.”

Said another: “I think (Thompson) did the right thing. … I thought King matched up in this league, this day and age, these receivers going and getting the football, big guys. I felt like he was a better fit.”

And the third: “I would have gone King. I didn’t like T.J. Watt. Maybe I’m wrong, but I didn’t like him. I thought the guy they drafted (in the fourth round, Vince Biegel) played as good as T.J. Watt (at Wisconsin).”

Steelers GM Kevin Colbert, whose defense runs the same Dick LeBeau-Dom Capers 3-4 scheme as the Packers, had a shot at King and Watt at No. 29 and took Watt. Colbert had drafted a cornerback (Artie Burns) with his first pick last year, so that might have weighed into his decision. But he also has a history of prizing outside linebackers – Watt was Colbert’s third first-rounder at that position in the last five drafts. 

“The only way I’d take the corner is if he was elite,” said the scout who favored Watt over King. “If they’re both just good players then I’m going with the pass rusher. … I always considered (King) to be a good solid corner. I don’t think he’s going to be a superstar, shutdown corner by any means. He’s not going to be Richard Sherman.”

The scout who mentioned Biegel brought up a final factor for the equation. Thompson drafted Biegel with the fourth-round pick he’d gained for moving back from 29 to 33. So it will be King and Biegel against Watt.

Biegel’s broken foot in the offseason has undermined his rookie year – he didn’t play the first seven games. He has no sacks in his 41 defensive snaps, though his playing time figures to pick up over the final six weeks.

“I don’t think he’s going to come off PUP and be the answer as a pass rusher,” one of the scouts said. “He’ll get some effort sacks. He’s more of a matchup guy than he is being able to beat the best (tackles) in the league week after week.

“I liked (J.J.) Watt’s brother (better) because of the traits. Physically he seemed a little more imposing, had a little more juice to him. He was new at the position so I thought there was more upside with him based off last year’s tape.”

Based on my Twitter feed, a faction of Packers fans already is sure Thompson botched it by passing on Watt. Watt’s two sacks and an interception in the opener certainly were an eye catcher.

But this needs to play out for another year, maybe a little longer. There’s no disputing Watt’s better start. But things change fast in this league – remember when Robert Griffin III was the toast of the NFL as a rookie?  – and it’s a long way from here to there.

As one of the scouts put it: “It’s the growth between now and next year that’s going to be interesting.”

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