T.J. Watt has been preparing for his future for quite a long time.
While every young athlete dreams of one day playing at the highest level, the former University of Wisconsin standout at outside linebacker took action eight years ago when he began practicing NFL combine events as a high school freshman.
It certainly paid off last month, when Watt’s draft stock began rapidly ascending after posting stunning numbers at the combine in Indianapolis.
The 6-foot-4, 252-pounder ranked in the top two among linebackers in the vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle and 60-yard shuttle. His 11.2-second time in the 60-yard shuttle tied him for the third-best mark for a linebacker over the past 12 years.
“A lot of hard work went into that,” said Watt, a Pewaukee native who surrendered his final year of eligibility to enter the draft. “I’ve been working on the next level, working on that stuff since I was really young. Getting to show people what I can do on a big stage like that was really big for me.”
His long-term work on those drills, coupled with a breakout season for the Badgers in 2016, has Watt on the edge of becoming a first-round pick when the NFL draft begins Thursday night. It continues with rounds 2-3 on Friday and rounds 4-7 on Saturday.
Watt, the younger brother of three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt, was a tight end less than two years ago and didn’t even play a major role during the 2015 season when he was still adjusting to a new position.
Last year, though, he excelled against the run and in pass-rushing situations, recording 63 tackles (15.5 TFLs) and 11.5 sacks.
Two drawbacks that may prevent a team selecting him in the first round could be his history of knee injuries, though he’s more than two years removed from his most recent one, and questions over whether he has the coverage skills needed to play in the NFL.
Watt tried to erase some of those latter concerns with some on-field drills during UW’s Pro Day in March.
“He needs to work on (dropping in coverage), but in a couple games I saw, he was really adequate,” said ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr., who noted games against LSU and Michigan State as examples. “The thing I love about the kid, he varies his moves as a pass rusher. He can pressure inside or outside. Versus the run, he’ll get off blocks, he’ll pursue.
“First round, I would say that’s maybe a little high. At worst I’d say (he’s) a second-rounder. Does he get into the late first? I wouldn’t rule it out, but I gave him a second-round grade.”
Kiper and just about every other draft guru expects another UW player, left tackle Ryan Ramczyk, to be selected in the first round. Like Watt, Ramczyk only had one impact season for the Badgers after transferring from UW-Stevens Point, but it was a year in which he dominated most of the games he played.
Ramczyk had hip surgery in January and couldn’t work out for NFL teams this offseason, but he’s still expected to be one of the first three offensive linemen off the board this week, along with Alabama’s Cam Robinson and Utah’s Garett Bolles. Kiper has the Denver Broncos taking Ramczyk at No. 20 in his latest mock draft, but the Baltimore Ravens (16th pick) and Houston Texans (25th pick) also have a big need at tackle.
“I wouldn’t say (the Broncos) have to, but I think the offensive line is the issue they need to solve,” Kiper said.
While Watt and Ramczyk are the headliners and only UW players expected to be taken in the first two rounds, six former Badgers have the possibility of being drafted, something the program hasn’t produced since 2012.
Outside linebacker Vince Biegel, a three-year starter known for his pass-rushing ability, will likely be selected in the middle rounds, while running backs Corey Clement and Dare Ogunbowale both have a good shot at becoming late-round picks.
Cornerback Sojourn Shelton, an impressive cover man who must overcome his lack of size, also could be drafted. He said at UW’s Pro Day that teams have told him he could be picked between rounds 5-7.
“A lot of teams like me,” Shelton said. “Of course I’ll have to move into the nickel, everybody says, but a lot of teams have watched me play on the outside all four years. … From the start, I’ll probably have to move inside to nickel to show that I can play outside.”
Wide receiver Robert Wheelwright and safety Leo Musso tested well at the Badgers’ Pro Day and could sign as priority free agents this weekend after the draft, along with quarterback Bart Houston.