Along with being the Steelers head coach, Mike Tomlin is a football junkie. Tomlin, during a recent appearance on Ben Roethlisberger's podcast, said he has been getting his football fix this offseason by watching the XFL. Fortunately for T.J. Watt, Tomlin's love of football helped contribute to the Steelers selecting Watt with the 30th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
On Sept. 3, 2016, Tomlin was keeping tabs on Wisconsin's season-opener against LSU. During the game, Watt's fourth-and-1 tackle against then-Tigers running back Leonard Fournette put Watt firmly on Tomlin and the Steelers' radar.
"(Watt) knew Fournette was getting the ball because Fournette, while in the huddle, kept a fixed gaze on Watt," Jim Wexell wrote in his book, On The Clock: Behind the scenes with the Pittsburgh Steelers at the NFL Draft. "T.J. took out the tight end, and then the pulling guard, before tripping Fournette by the ankle for the stuff."
Watt's tackle helped the Badgers upset No. 5 LSU, 16-14. It also led to then-Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert sending two scouts to Wisconsin to get a closer look at Watt.
You can see the play for yourself at the 4:55 mark in the video below.
Despite his 11.5 sacks that season, many analysts projected Watt as a second-round pick. Some of that had to do with Watt's injuries in college along with the fact that he was still relatively new to the outside linebacker position after starting his college career as a tight end.
The Steelers continued to keep a close eye on Watt. They met with him at that year's NFL Combine before dining with him on the eve of Wisconsin's Pro Day. While he didn't say much at that dinner, Watt further got the Steelers' attention with an impressive pro day performance.
Pittsburgh wasn't the only team keeping tabs on Watt. The Green Bay Packers, the team Watt cheered for growing up, was in the market for a pass-rusher. But the Packers, who did not have a pick in the first round, never got a chance to draft him. That's because Pittsburgh snatched Watt up three picks before Green Bay was on the clock with the 33rd pick.
While criticized by some at the time, the Steelers' selection of Watt has aged quite well. Watt will enter the 2023 season as a five-time Pro Bowler, a three-time All-Pro and the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. He has led the league in sacks on two occasions and is 3.5 sacks away from breaking James Harrison's franchise career record.
"T.J. was a very fundamentally, mechanically sound outside linebacker," Colbert said in Wexell's book. "Most of the time when we've had to take players for that position, they've had to learn how to play on their feet because most of them are college defensive ends. Well, T.J. wasn't. He played that position in a 3-4 defense at Wisconsin. You could see him understanding how to play the schematic. It was very similar to ours. But his advanced use of his hands as a pass-rusher was something that stood out, and I'm sure he got a lot of that not only from the Wisconsin staff but from J.J. as well.
"So along those lines, he obviously benefitted from his brother's experience. But we didn't take him because his name was Watt."
The Steelers ultimately took Watt because of what Colbert said above, but also for his penchant for making plays like the one he made on Fournette back in September of 2016. Watt has continued to make similar plays for the Steelers on his way to becoming one of the NFL's best players.