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Labriola On

Labriola on Day 1 of the NFL Draft

In terms of what went according to form, there was the incessant booing of Roger Goodell – it was Philadelphia, after all – and then shortly after the City of Brotherly Love did to the NFL Commissioner as he opened the 2017 NFL Draft what it once did to Santa Claus, things got weird.

After the Cleveland Browns did what widely was expected and began the proceedings by selecting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett, a draft said to be loaded with defensive talent became offensive and stayed that way for the better part of the next hour.

"You saw trades right out of the gate, and I thought that was going to happen," said General Manager Kevin Colbert, "and I think there were even a couple of more trades after (we picked). The unpredictability unfolded like we thought."

The Chicago Bears got things going when they gave up three picks – a No. 3, a No. 4, and a No. 3 in 2018 – to flip-flop with San Francisco and vault the 49ers into the second overall slot in this first round to pick North Carolina quarterback Mitchell (don't call me Mitch) Trubisky less than two months after signing quarterback Mike Glennon to a three-year, $45 million contract shortly after free agency opened in early March.

Maybe inspired by the Bears' aggressiveness in attacking the quarterback prospects, there would be two more trades among the first dozen overall picks to get in place to pick that position. Kansas City swapped places in this first round with Buffalo and also threw in a No. 3 pick in this draft and a No. 1 pick in 2018 for the right to select Pat Mahomes, and then Houston talked the Browns into swapping out of the 12th overall pick by sending its No. 1 pick in 2018 to Cleveland in order to take Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Once Watson had been fitted with his Texans' cap, the focus of the draft shifted dramatically, and this dramatic shift was not in the Steelers' favor. The Texans picked Watson 12th overall, and there would be 17 more picks made before the Steelers' turn came at No. 30 overall. Thirteen of those 17 picks were spent on defensive players.

Among the millions of mock drafts that were done, the Steelers' first-round pick had been linked with a wide variety of positions, from tight ends to quarterbacks to wide receivers, but all along it just felt as though it had to be defense, and more specifically, it had to be tied to pass defense. Steelers President Art Rooney II had said in late January that one of the offseason's goals would be to find a way to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and when free agency, as expected, wasn't the path chosen to meet that directive it only made sense for the team to get to it as soon as possible in this draft.

Haason Reddick went to Arizona at No. 13, then it was Derek Barnett to Philadelphia at No. 14, and the guys whose forte was pass defense started flying off the board. Charles Harris, Tak McKinley, and Taco Charlton were three more pass-rushing types to get selected between picks No. 13 and No. 28, and mixed in among those guys in that same range were a half-dozen of the higher-ranked defensive backs – Malik Hooker, Marlon Humphrey, Adoree Jackson, Gareon Conley, Jabrill Peppers, and Tre'Davious White.

The Cowboys came into this draft with a shopping list similar to the Steelers', and only when they took Charlton and then the Browns traded back up to No. 29 overall and made tight end David Njoku their third first-round pick of the day did Colbert and Coach Mike Tomlin know they would be able to pick a player they had been eyeing since the start of the college football season.

"It's always exciting to get that first pick, and T.J. Watt is somebody we've had our eye on really since the early fall," said Colbert. "We made a visit up there (to Madison, Wisconsin). We had two other scouts go in. He was one of those junior possibility guys who might come out early. After their season, Coach (Paul) Chryst actually texted me and said, 'Hey, can you take a look at this young man, and give me an idea of where his draft value might be before he decides to come out?' We did that. I looked at (Watt on video) and said, 'Coach, this kid is a first-round pick.'"

That prediction came true when the Steelers wrote his name on the card and turned it in some three hours after the picking began on Thursday night, and this converted tight end showed enough of what Colbert and Tomlin were looking for during a 2016 season in which he posted 11.5 sacks, 15.5 tackles for loss, one interception, and four passes defensed in 14 starts. And if Watt started for only one season on defense for the Badgers, he did finish as an Academic All-Big Ten selection twice.

"T.J. is a rock solid young man who has a lot of upside," said Tomlin. "He doesn't have a lot of experience at the position, but at the same time we saw some things that were exciting to us. His hand usage in particular for a guy with his short resume at the position was exciting. His production speaks for itself. He's just a quality guy and a quality pick for us. We're excited about bringing him into the fold, getting started, and continuing his development not only as a football player, but as an outside linebacker. That's probably the most exciting element of the T.J. discussion. He's worthy of the pick, but boy are we excited about the potential upside and growth given the short length of time he's played the position."

Once Watt declared for this edition of the NFL Draft, the Steelers' turned up the volume of their research on him. He was one of the players the team interviewed during the Combine in February, and then on the night before his Pro Day in Madison, he dined with Colbert and Tomlin and outside linebackers coach Joey Porter. So satisfied were the Steelers about the kind of player/person they had determined Watt to be that the team didn't even bother using one of its 30 allotted pre-draft visits to bringing him to Pittsburgh one last time.

"I knew schematically it was a great fit for me, and that's why I was intrigued by them so much," said Watt about the Steelers' interest in him. "I had dinner with them right before my Pro Day, and I worked out with them on my Pro Day as well. So they did show quite a bit of interest, but after my Pro Day, it kind of tapered off. So that was probably the point where I didn't know. But I had a feeling come draft night that it was a really good match for me and a really good fit. I thought that it could happen."

It happened, and Watt will begin his Steelers career as a right outside linebacker, a spot where William Gay sits atop the depth chart. Trent Jordan is the youngest of the Watt brothers to make professional football his career choice, but the Steelers don't view him as some alternate version of his older brothers, J.J. and Derek.

"I think is about T.J. It's not about J.J., and it's not about Derek, his other brother," said Colbert. "It's a unique story, three guys in the NFL, but this is about T.J. and what he can do. I think once you meet him, you'll get that feeling from him. I don't think he ever mentioned any of his brothers – unless we asked about them. He's himself, he's his own man, and he's going to try to make his own mark. I wouldn't be shocked if he tries to out-do everything that his family has done to this point. He seems to be that kind of guy, and he's going to be very quiet about it, too. This kid isn't going to say a heck of a lot. He just lets his play speak for itself."

On that same issue, Watt said, "Obviously, everybody knows me as J.J.'s younger brother, but people don't know the little things, the work ethic, the countless hours of film study. Doing all the little things, like getting the right amount of sleep, hydration, just treating myself like a professional athlete while I was still in college. I think I have learned so much from J.J., and I have been able to translate that to myself. I don't think people really even know who I am at this point, just because I have been in such a big shadow, and that's why I cannot wait to get to Pittsburgh and kind of become my own person."

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