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T.J. Edwards and the Watt Rivalry That Fuels Him

The Eagles linebacker had a quiet breakout season in 2022. It was thanks in part to some very loud workouts with a Watt brother of the same name.

T.J. Watt insists he doesn’t care who wins Super Bowl LVII, but the Steelers’ star edge rusher won’t lack for meaningful allegiances when the action kicks off either. “I don’t root for a team,” Watt says. "I’m just gonna be rooting for the people in it.”

In particular, Watt will be cheering for his close friend and former college teammate, Eagles linebacker T.J. Edwards, whose ascent from undrafted free agent to do-it-all anchor for a suffocating Eagles defense ranks high among the game’s most compelling success stories. Not that Watt is surprised. “All the big plays and impressive stats aren’t possible without the hard work he’s put in,” Watt says. “He loves the grind, loves the process.”

Watt would know. On top of sharing a moniker, the twosome of T.J.s trains side by side every offseason at a gym outside Milwaukee, where their fierce workout battles over the past four springs and early summers laid a foundation for Edwards’s breakout fourth year in the NFL last fall. “When T.J.’s around,” Watt, 28, says of Edwards, 26, “we get very competitive. Whether it’s a simple stretching drill, or a box jump, or anything strength-related, we’re always trying to win.”

T.J. Edwards celebrates a play

Four days a week, for three or so months, Edwards and Watt’s rivalry unfolds at NX Level Sports Performance in Waukesha, Wis., under the patient tutelage of trainer Brad Arnett, who adds an extra half hour to every session’s schedule because of the inevitable time his clients will waste quibbling over the outcomes of their reps. “Somebody has to prove they're better,” Arnett says. “Then, obviously, when one guy feels they won, it’s s----talking the whole workout.”

On the field, Edwards took on a true three-down role for the first time this year, playing 94% of Philly’s defensive snaps during the regular season (up from last year’s then-career-high of 64%). He was one of the NFL’s leading tacklers, finishing tied for seventh in the league with a career-best 99 solo wrap-ups during the regular season. Off the field he is one of his gym’s leading talkers; Arnett recalls once ruling Edwards as the winner in a long jump competition over Watt, after which the former went “running backwards down the turf, hooting and hollering,” Arnett says. “And that even carries over into things they do outside here, like if they go to the golf course. Everything they do is about pushing each other and holding each other accountable.”

When it comes to scorecards, Edwards and Watt are careful to write down their actual first names—Terrence and Trent, respectively—lest any further results-related rows arise. “We make sure we don’t mix it up,” Watt says. But there is no confusing the two in their abilities on the links. “He’s significantly better than me, at the moment,” Watt says. “So I don’t really have ground to stand on.”

Football-wise Watt clearly boasts the better résumé, between his three all-Pro selections, five Pro Bowls, and reigning Defensive Player of the Year honors. Even so, Edwards holds a distinct edge in one department: growth. Or, rather, a lack thereof. “We always gave him a lot of grief in college because his neck was ginormous,” Watt says. “Got swallowed by his traps. He lost a lot of weight when he got into the NFL, and his body really came into form. I think it’s been showing in his performance. His diet, his conditioning, his strength—everything has seemed to level up each year.”

While hardly dialing up the Eagles’ All-22 film on a regular basis, Watt paid plenty close attention to Edwards’s success from the other side of Pennsylvania. “I see the highlights,” Watt says. “He’s a very disruptive player, sideline to sideline. And he triggers very fast downhill, especially on a lot of screen passes.” The Steelers—minus Watt, then still recovering from a torn pectoral muscle suffered in their season opener—learned as much during their 35–13 loss to the Eagles in Week 8, when Edwards finished with 12 tackles, two defended passes and one quarterback hit. “He’s starting to make more plays. He’s starting to get more confidence,” Watt says. “Then with that comes a swagger.”

Wisconsin's linebackers, including T.J. Edwards and T.J. Watt, pose for a photo in 2016

Edwards (second from left, No. 53) and Watt (far right, No. 42), on the sideline at Wisconsin in 2016.

Arnett makes a similar observation: “If you look at pictures of him from his senior year at Wisconsin, to what he looks like now, it doesn’t even look like the same person. He’s always been a smart, cerebral player. But it took some time, changing his body composition and getting him to the point where he’s moving faster laterally, with more efficiency. But he knew where he wanted to go.” Asked if the world-class example set by Watt, who overlapped with Edwards for two seasons in Madison, contributed to that vision of where Edwards indeed wanted to go, Arnett replies, “Absolutely. You bet.”

No doubt the tone here was originally set by Watt’s older brother, J.J., who started training with Arnett as a teenager and continued to return most offseasons until his recent retirement. (Youngest brother Derek, a Steelers fullback and special-teamer, is also part of the usual crew.) “All these guys have followed J.J.’s career and the way he handles things, his consistency in everything he does,” Arnett says. “At the end of workouts they’d just sit and talk, [with J.J.] passing on knowledge.”

Not that J.J.’s absence lessens the intensity whatsoever; last year, with the future Hall of Famer training elsewhere, T.J. and T.J. were neck and neck in a shuttle drill that concluded with a 10-yard, straightaway sprint. On other days, Arnett has seen participants nudge, shove and dive their way across the finish line. “You name it, they’re doing whatever they can,” Arnett says. This time, however, Edwards slipped coming out of the final turn, opening an insurmountable lead for Watt, who proceeded to wheel around and backpedal for the final five yards. “Just staring at [Edwards], giving him s---,” Arnett says. “The whole group went nuts, and that carried over into the workout, in a good way.”

It is all positive for Edwards and Watt—not only how challenging each other at the gym has helped shape their careers, but also how a real friendship has developed through training, through teeing off together, through “just hanging out, grabbing food,” says Watt, who hosted Edwards at his wedding last July and plans to return the favor this summer. “He’s a guy you can work out with, you can grind with, can talk smack and give smack and not take it personally. A cool core friend to have.”

And so, while Watt refuses to outright declare that he wants the Eagles to win, he happily walks right up to that linguistic line of scrimmage in support of his friend. “I’m excited to see him hopefully win the Super Bowl and hopefully get paid,” Watt says of Edwards, who will surely get a raise from the one-year, $2.2 million deal he played this season on. “Maybe beat him at golf a couple times, too.”

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