GREEN BAY — Could T.J. Watt be the perfect fit for the Green Bay Packers’ pass rush-deficient defense? The guy many draft experts are comparing the University of Wisconsin star to — Clay Matthews — seems to think so.
Although Matthews has never met Watt, he’s familiar with Watt’s game — and his older brother, J.J., the three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year. And with Packers coach Mike McCarthy yet again tinkering with the idea of moving Matthews all over his defense in 2017 — despite a lack of depth when it comes to edge rushers — Matthews is a big fan of the idea of adding Watt to the Packers’ pass-rushing mix.
Coming from a guy who has had to live up to family name expectations himself — his father, Clay Jr., has been a Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist and his uncle, Bruce, is in the Hall — that says a lot about Matthews’ belief in Watt’s potential.
"Obviously, everyone’s going to expect big things out of him with how well J.J. has been playing in this league,” Matthews said last week when the Packers returned to work for the start of the offseason program. “I think he just wants his shot, and I know some of the mock draft boards have him potentially coming here — which would be great, if he’s even half the player that his brother is.
“I’m sure there’s pressure on him. But I’m sure if he’s anything like his brother, he’ll have a drive and work ethic that can’t be matched.”
Watt, whose brother Derek is also in the NFL as a fullback with the Los Angeles Chargers, is projected by most as a late first- to second-round pick. With the Packers set to pick at No. 29, he will likely be there for the taking.
But he’ll probably be gone by the time the Packers’ second-round pick (No. 61) rolls around, which is a similar scenario to what Packers general manager Ted Thompson faced with his affinity for Matthews in 2009. Having taken nose tackle B.J. Raji with the ninth overall pick but smitten with Matthews as well for the Packers’ new 3-4 defense, Thompson traded back into the first round — the only time he’s done so during his 12 drafts in Green Bay — to take Matthews at No. 26.
Thompson, who played with Matthews’ uncle Bruce with the Houston Oilers, said last week that a player’s lineage isn’t a major factor in draft decisions, but it is a consideration.
“We try to see, is Clay Matthews a good football player and can he help our team? And is the kind of person we'd like to add to our team? I think those are the questions we wind up asking,” Thompson said. “(Genetics) is a contributory part of the equation. It's just that I don't normally sit around, especially on draft day itself, thinking about it. I would have already calculated that in my mind leading up the days of the draft, but I don't think you do it on draft days though. I was just hoping to be able to draft him.”
Matthews, meanwhile, said he didn’t feel any added pressure.
“I always wanted to be more successful than just having the last name Matthews,” Matthews said.
The Packers need edge-rushing help, having allowed Julius Peppers, who ranks fifth in NFL history in sacks, and 2013 first-round draft pick Datone Jones, who led the team in combined quarterback hits/pressures despite recording only one sack last season, depart in free agency. Watt, who met with the Packers are the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February, said he isn’t focusing on his home-state team.
“To be honest with you, it doesn't matter where I'm drafted or who I'm drafted to. Obviously it would be great to be a first-round draft choice, but second, third, fourth it really doesn't matter,” Watt said. “It doesn't really matter where I go. Wherever I go I'm going to keep my mouth shut and just work as hard as I can and play ball.”
Watt said he appreciates the Matthews comparisons but isn’t fixated on them — “It's a great comparison, (but) I personally don't shape my game after anyone else,” Watt said — just as he’s not focused on comparison’s to his oldest brother.
“Early on when J.J. first started blowing up, I didn't know how to handle it, but now definitely I love it. My brother is the best defensive player to ever play the game, in my opinion,” Watt said. “Obviously, I'm biased. When you play the sport of football and you have the person as your role model a phone call, a text away, it's special. And he does it so well and so right. I'm just trying to replicate what he does.”
Like his older brother, who started his college career as a tight end at Central Michigan before transferring home to Wisconsin and moving to defensive end, Watt has only been on defense for two years – which is why he believes his best football is ahead of him.
“The hardest thing for me was the steep learning curve, playing offense most of my life. Reacting to different plays and dropping into coverage was new to me, but at this point in my game I'm pretty good at everything I do,” Watt said. “I’m only scratching the surface. If I can do all the things I did this last year what can I do when I'm under the tutelage of an NFL coach? Obviously (there’s a) lack of film, lack of experience. But I don’t think it's a problem with my work ethic and my bloodlines and stuff like that."