It was just after 10 p.m. on April 27, 2017.
The Green Bay Packers, desperate for a young pass rusher, were on the clock with the 29th pick in the NFL Draft. The top remaining rusher in the eyes of most scouts just happened to grow up two hours from Lambeau Field, starred at the University of Wisconsin and came from impeccable bloodlines.
As Pewaukee’s T.J. Watt waited and watched, the ex-Badger star and lifelong Packers fan had one overriding thought.
“I thought it was a legitimate possibility that I could go to Green Bay,” Watt said during a 2017 interview. “But they didn’t want me.”
No, they didn’t.
Then-Packers’ general manager Ted Thompson did a lot of terrific things during his 13 years in that role. Passing on Watt was one of his worst.
Instead of drafting Watt at No. 29, Thompson traded out of the first round altogether. Thompson received picks No. 33 and 108 from Cleveland and used those selections on cornerback Kevin King and outside linebacker Vince Biegel.
King has been a colossal disappointment and his career is hanging by a thread, while Biegel lasted just three years in the league.
The Browns, meanwhile, used the 29th pick on tight end David Njoku, who has been a bust for Cleveland. Pittsburgh then used the 30th overall selection on Watt, who has been arguably the best defensive player in football since 2017.
Green Bay hosts Pittsburgh Sunday at 3:25 p.m. (CST) in what will be Watt’s first trip to Lambeau Field since entering the NFL. And the Green Bay faithful will get a first-hand look at the player who could have been a Packer.
“To pass up three Watts … we really thought T.J. was going to be there,” Connie Watt, T.J.’s mother, told WTMJ-TV last week. “Honestly, we were all sitting on the edge of our seats. It will always be a mystery to us.”
To this day, it remains a mystery to everyone in Wisconsin, too.
In his brief four-year career, Watt has been named to three Pro Bowls and was selected first-team All-Pro twice. He’s posted 52.5 sacks, forced a remarkable 19 fumbles, has four interceptions and four fumble recoveries.
Watt led the NFL with 15.0 sacks in 2020, was named the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Year and received the Deacon Jones Award, given annually to the NFL leader in quarterback sacks. Then shortly before the 2021 season began, Watt signed a four-year, $112 million deal with $80 million guaranteed that made him the NFL’s highest paid defensive player.
“T.J. is visiting from another planet, to be quite honest with you,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin. “He has freakishly unique talent coupled with freakishly unique work habits and mindset, and it produces what you guys witness every week.”
When it comes to King, Green Bay has gotten an oft-injured, mediocre cornerback with skills that seem to be rapidly declining.
King has missed 22 of his first 67 career games due to a variety of injuries, and he’s expected to be sidelined Sunday with a concussion.
The physical nature of the game has taken a toll on King’s performance, too. King ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at the 2017 NFL Combine, but didn’t show any of that speed during a rough 2020 season.
King had one of the poorest performances in Packer playoff history when he allowed two touchdowns in the 2020 NFC Championship Game vs. Tampa Bay, including a 39-yarder to Scotty Miller with one second left in the first half. Making matters worse, King’s pass interference penalty with just less than two minutes left in the game prevented Green Bay from getting the ball back.
King’s lousy 2020 hurt him in free agency, and the Packers eventually brought him back on a one year, $5 million deal. Green Bay also used a first-round draft pick on cornerback Eric Stokes, who has played extremely well and seems likely to continue starting even when King returns.
“I’m not the type of guy that just tries to sweep shit under the rug, you know? ‘All right, let me get a fresh start somewhere,’ ” King said this summer on why he returned to Green Bay. “No. No. I’m … I want to finish this with my guys, you know what I’m saying? The guys who’ve believed in me and the guys who continue to believe in me.”
No one believed in King more than Thompson.
To this day, it remains a mystery why?
Watt played just one full year at outside linebacker at Wisconsin and went wild with 11.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss and 63 tackles. Watt then decided to join brothers J.J. and Derek in the NFL and left Wisconsin after his memorable junior season.
Watt (6-4, 252) was bigger than Clay Matthews (6-3, 240) was coming out of USC in 2009. Watt also has slightly larger arms (33 1/8” vs. 32 ¼”) and substantially bigger hands (11” vs. 9 ½”) than Matthews.
Matthews edged Watt in bench press reps (23-21) and 40-yard dash time (4.67 vs. 4.69). But Watt held the edge in the three-cone drill (6.79 seconds vs. 6.90), the 20-yard shuttle (4.13 seconds vs. 4.18), the vertical jump (37 inches vs. 35.5) and the broad jump (128.0 inches vs. 121.0).
Watt wanted nothing more than to play for the team he idolized as a child. Instead, Thompson traded back knowing the chances were high Watt would be gone when Green Bay was back on the clock.
“I think I was Brett Favre four or five times for Halloween,” Watt said last week. “That’s kind of how it was in our family.”
Watt had 20.0 sacks his first two seasons in the league. Green Bay’s leader in that time was Kyler Fackrell (13.5), a player the Packers thought so little of they didn’t make him an offer when he became a free agent after the 2019 season.
With the Packers desperate for help at outside linebacker, they broke the bank for Za’Darius Smith (four years, $66 million) and Preston Smith (four years, $52 million) in March, 2019. Green Bay also used a first-round draft pick on Michigan outside linebacker Rashan Gary that same year.
Both Smiths had terrific 2019 seasons. But Preston struggled in 2020 and Za’Darius underwent back surgery this week and could miss the rest of this season. In 34 career games, Gary has just 7.5 career sacks.
Watt is younger than both of the Smiths. He’s also a superior player than both Smiths and Gary.
If Thompson had selected Watt, not only would he have landed a generational talent. Green Bay could have also used its free agency resources and draft capital to address positions besides outside linebacker.
Instead, the Packers were left chasing their own tails and the defense remains a problem today.
“He just doesn’t stop,” Raiders quarterback Derek Carr said recently of Watt. “Just like his brother (J.J.). Those two guys, whenever you play them, you know you’re in for a fight for the whole down and they’re going to fight and claw and do whatever they can to get to you. Whether you hold it for one second or you hold it for eight, they are not going to stop.”
Watt missed the Steelers’ Week 3 loss to Cincinnati with a groin injury. It was just the third game of his brilliant career he’s missed, but he’s expected to be back against Green Bay Sunday.
King is expected to miss his second straight game with a concussion. That would mark the 23rd game of King’s disappointing career that he’s missed due to injury.
“I didn’t have high expectations or I didn’t really care where I ended up in the draft,” Watt said. “I just wanted to end up with a good team and a great fit and I’m glad that I ended up here in Pittsburgh.”
No one is happier than the Steelers themselves, who had a potential Hall of Famer gifted to them by Thompson. In Green Bay, it’s been a much different story, one with little hope of a happy ending.