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Steelers LB Watt meets team he wanted to join

Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker T.J. Watt (90) celebrates a Steelers sack against the Tennessee Titans during the second quarter recently at Heinz Field. (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Rob Reischel

The Sports Xchange

GREEN BAY — It was just after 10 p.m. on April 27.

The Green Bay Packers, desperate for a young pass rusher, were on the clock with the 29th pick in the 2017 Draft. The top remaining rusher 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 Wednesday afternoon. “But they didn’t want me.”

No they didn’t.

Packers’ general manager Ted Thompson traded out of the first round instead of choosing Watt at No. 29. Thompson received picks No. 33 and 108 from Cleveland and used those selections on cornerback Kevin King and outside linebacker Vince Biegel.

The Browns used the 29th pick on tight end David Njoku, who has been a bit player, at best, in his rookie season. Pittsburgh then used the 30th overall selection on Watt, who is in the running for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Watt has played in nine games and has four sacks, one interception, 33 tackles and five passes defensed. On the flip side, King has had an up-and-down, injury-plagued rookie season, while Biegel has seven tackles in just three games.

When Green Bay travels to Pittsburgh Sunday night, Thompson will get a first-hand look at the player he could have selected, but instead chose to run away from.

“You know, he’s a very low-maintenance young guy,” Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of Watt. “He learns lessons extremely quickly. He’s a guy who’s capable of learning from others’ mistakes. He himself doesn’t make mistakes twice. He’s diligent, he’s attentive. He’s a note taker, he’s very professional in his approach. I think all of those things set him up for the consistency in the play we’re getting.”

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-foot-4, 252) was bigger than Clay Matthews (6-foot-3, 240) was coming out of USC in 2009. Watt also has slightly larger arms (33 1/8 inches vs. 32 1/4 inches) and substantially bigger hands (11 inches vs. 9 1/2 inches) 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).

For whatever reason, though, Thompson went in a different direction on draft night.

“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.”

The Steelers are awfully glad, too.

Watt had seven tackles, two sacks and an interception in his first-ever NFL start. And he hasn’t slowed down since.

Today, Watt is a major reason Pittsburgh ranks No. 4 in total defense, No. 3 against the pass and No. 2 in scoring defense (16.5).

“T.J. Watt, he’s having a heck of a year,” Packers head coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s a perfect fit for the scheme; great motor, he plays the run well. Plays very good discipline, I’ve been very impressed with that as far as being acclimated to their scheme and what they’re asking him to do. He’s a fine, fine football player.”

Green Bay, on the other hand, still doesn’t have a firm grasp of what it has with King and Biegel.

King leads Green Bay with seven passes defensed, but doesn’t have an interception, a fumble recovery or a forced fumble. Biegel missed the first seven games of the year after undergoing offseason foot surgery, and has begun playing more snaps from scrimmage in recent weeks.

But both King and Biegel have a lot to prove. And seven months after Thompson traded back and passed on Watt, it appears that decision has harmed a defense that desperately needed a Pro-Bowl caliber player.

“I just feel like I came into this whole process with a professional approach and I just wanted to be the best player I could be and let my play do the talking for me,” Watt said.

So far, so good for Watt and the Steelers. In Green Bay, it’s been a different story.

SERIES HISTORY: 34th regular-season meeting. Packers lead series, 18-15, and defeated the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV.

** Outside linebacker Clay Matthews suffered a groin injury against Baltimore, and might be a game-time decision Sunday. Matthews did not participate in Wednesday’s practice.

“I feel good,” Matthews said. “I still have some obstacles to overcome, dealing with the groin. Mike does a good job, and I feel like we have a good relationship. He’ll probably allow me to take it all the way up to the game time. It’s one of those things that we may not want to push it as well and set myself back. I can’t give you a realistic answer, but we’ll probably take it up to the game.”

** Rookie running back Devante Mays had one of the most inauspicious debuts in recent memory. Mays fumbled on the first two carries of his career last week against Baltimore. On the first fumble, Mays said he didn’t know the play and was expecting a handoff instead of a toss.

“The first time, it was just not knowing the play, really, what the play was,” Mays said. “It was just everything wasn’t right on that, and then second time it was just my fault. I’ve just got to put two hands on the ball, and I know that it’s my job to take care of the ball. Just got to do a better job at that.”

** Wide receiver Jordy Nelson has been largely invisible the last four games, with only eight catches for 92 yards. But Nelson insists he hasn’t gotten frustrated with his reduced role in the offense.

“I’ve never put my game or how I play on my stats,” he said. “I’ve never set goals to get so many yards because I know, in our position as receivers, you can only control so much. That’s what I’m worried about is what I can control and that’s how I’m running my routes, how I’m doing my assignments, what the coaches are seeing, if they’re coaching me up and I need to improve those things and continue to grow in the others.

“You want to be a part of it more, but you have no control over it. Again, I don’t want to sit here and say (Brett Hundley) needs to throw me the ball because that’s definitely not the case. I’m going to do my job, they’re going to do theirs. If we continue to do that and be more consistent in everyone doing that, we’ll be successful.”