J.J. Watt still has what it takes to be a major force as a pass-rusher

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Doug Farrar
·6 min read
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It’s not clear just how much worse things can get for the Houston Texans in the “Self-Inflicted Wounds” department, but the outright release of the best player in franchise history so that said player can actually win somewhere else is an interesting addition. On Friday, the Texans announced that they had granted J.J. Watt his release in a headline that sold it as “Houston Texans and J.J. Watt mutually agree to part ways.”

“Change is never easy, especially when it involves the ones you love. J.J.’s impact on not only our organization, but the entire Houston community, is unlike any player in our franchise’s history,” said Texans Chair and CEO Cal McNair in the team statement. “I told J.J. earlier this week that we will forever consider him a Texan. We take solace in knowing that this is not a goodbye but a ‘see you soon.’ For now, we will build upon the foundation that J.J. created here and forge ahead with our unwavering mission to bring a championship to our city, create memorable experiences for our fans and do great things for Houston.”

Watt leaves the Texans as the franchise’s all-time sacks leader (101.0), a three-time Associated Press NFL Defensive Player of the Year Award winner (2012, 2014-15) and the 2017 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year.

Off the field, Watt’s response to the disastrous Hurricane Harvey in 2017 helped him earn the prestigious Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award. The hurricane made landfall in Houston as Watt and the Texans were away playing their third preseason game. While watching the events unfold from afar, Watt posted a video on social media announcing a fundraising campaign with a very attainable goal of $200,000, to which he intended to match the first $100,000. In just 19 days, he would help raise more than $37 million, a total that eventually grew to more than $41 million. Watt dedicated himself to finding organizations that applied the funds in the ways that he promised the donors and victims of the disaster. He also ensured that every dollar went directly to the people of Houston and its surrounding areas that were in need.

On the field, before injuries affected his athletic potential to a point, Watt was basically Aaron Donald — an absolutely unstoppable behemoth. At 6-foot-5 and 288 pounds, he put up 20.5 sacks in both 2012 and 2014, 17.5 sacks in 2015, and 16 sacks in 2018 — this after missing all but eight total games in 2016 and 2017 due to injury. Watt had just nine total sacks in 2019 and 2010 — five last season — but in 2020, he also had 11 quarterback hits, 29 quarterback hurries, and 34 stops on a defensive line that wasn’t exactly packed with other stars. Last season, the Texans had 33 solo sacks (middle of the pack) and 211 total pressures (sixth-worst in the league), which means that Watt had 21.3% of the team’s total pressures.

Now that Watt is available, and will likely be able to narrow down the market to the best fits possible, it’s a good time to revisit what his effect is on a defensive line at age 31 — he’ll turn 32 on March 22.

Since 1982, when the sack became an official NFL statistic, 27 different players have put up 10-sack seasons at age 32, led by Robert Mathis of the Colts with 19.5 in 2013. At age 33, the lists thins down to 15, led by Bruce Smith’s 13.5 in 1996 for the Bills. At age 34, the list further narrows to 12, led by Kevin Greene’s 14.5 for the Panthers. At age 35, further down to 10, led by Trace Armstrong’s 16.5 (!!!) for the 2000 Dolphins.

You get the idea. Watt isn’t likely in line for a bunch of dominant seasons as we remember him at his best, but that’s not a crucial concept. The more important point is that the tape shows a player who can still contribute to any defensive line, from multiple gaps, in a highly impactful sense.

Teams vetting Watt at this point will be just as interested in his snap counts as what he’s doing with those snaps, especially with his injury history. In 2020, Watt played 1,016 total snaps, his highest total since 2016, when he amassed 1,026 snaps. So, no problem there.

Watt was the premier multi-gap defensive lineman of his era at his peak, and one of the best in NFL history. Over time, his role with the Texans reduced to the edge for the most part. In 2020, per Pro Football Focus, Watt played 702 snaps at LEO, 134 snaps at REO, 90 snaps at left end, and 32 snaps at right end. He played just 10 snaps at defensive left tackle, eight at right defensive tackle, 10 at any kind of nose tackle, and a handful of snaps as an off-ball linebacker.

Does he still have what it takes as a potentially dominant edge guy for the next few seasons? Per the tape, the answer is: Absolutely, unequivocally, yes. Add in the multi-gap potential, and we’ve got liftoff.

This sack of Ryan Tannehill in Week 6, which led to a forced fumble, was an exceedingly ugly rep for left tackle Ty Sambrailo. You can’t be late to your set like this against someone of Watt’s ability to generate power at the turn, and this screams sack all the way. Yes, it’s an all-out blitz, but Sambrailo just gets nuked on this one-on-one. The Titans, who have their own pass-rush issues, should be on the phone with Watt’s agent with quickness and intensity.

Speaking of power at the turn, there’s this sack of Philip Rivers in Week 15. This time, left tackle Chaz Green is Watt’s Huckleberry, and watch how Watt just long-arms Green into the pocket, swims his way around the blocker, and finds Rivers for the takedown.

Watt sacked Lamar Jackson twice in Week 2. The second came in a wide alignment against right tackle Orlando Brown, who at least gets his feet to the target, but isn’t as aggressive with his hands as he should be. What you still see from Watt, over and over, is a furious desire to take merciless advantage of any blocker’s weak points.

So, the fact that the Texans let J.J. Watt walk has a great deal more to do with the Texans’ own dysfunction (and Watt’s $17.5 million cap hit in the final year of his contract) than any hint of “doneness” with Watt’s talent. As a multi-gap enforcer with actual talent around him, Watt could well be ready to end his remarkable career with quite the Renaissance.