The 2011 NFL Draft was stacked (pun intended) with talent. This draft produced 29 Pro Bowlers, one league MVP, a Super Bowl MVP, and plenty of household names. The first round alone included Cam Newton, Von Miller, Patrick Peterson, A.J. Green, and Julio Jones who are considered elite (okay, maybe not Cam but still, big name). One name stands out if you’re a Houston fan, or a fan of hard-nose defenders who own the backfield. That name is none other than the 11th pick in the 2011 Draft, a defensive end out of Wisconsin by the name of Justin James (J.J.) Watt.
The J.J. Watt Dilemma
Watt’s career started out promising for the Texans. He started all 16 games his rookie season and finished with 56 tackles, five-and-a-half sacks, and four pass deflections. As the team headed to the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, Watt continued to shine. In the wild card game against the Cincinatti Bengals, Watt recorded two tackles, a sack, a pass deflection, and an interception that he took 29 yards for the score that helped lead the Texans to victory. Houston would lose to the Baltimore Ravens in the divisional round yet Watt still came away with 12 tackles and two-and-a-half sacks.
2012 was arguably Watt’s best season. The young defensive end shattered the previous team record for sacks in a season previously held by Mario Williams (14.5) with an impressive 20.5 sacks. Had Watt managed to sack any quarterback two more times, he would have tied the NFL record held by Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. On top of the impressive sack number, Watt added 81 total tackles, 16 pass deflections(!), four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries. The incredible season earned Watt his first Pro Bowl appearance as well as his first Defensive Player of the Year award.
The 2013 season was an off one for the Texans. Watt finished with 80 tackles, 10.5 sacks, seven pass deflections, four forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries but the Texans finished with a 2-14 record. Watt did, however, make the Pro Bowl again and also received a six-year contract extension worth $100 million making him the highest paid non-quarterback in the NFL.
2014 is the only season that can be argued as better than 2012 for Watt. He totaled 78 tackles, 10 pass deflections, and matched his career high 20.5 sacks. Watt also scored five touchdowns for the Texans in 2014, an 80 yard interception return, a 45 yard fumble return, and three receptions as a tight end. Watt earned his third consecutive Pro Bowl trip as well his second Defensive Player of the Year award. Watt also was a runner up for the league’s Most Valuable Player award and was named the number one player on NFL Network’s Top 100 Players of 2016.
The Downward Spiral
The 2015 season was far from a bad season for Watt, it just seems to have marked the beginning of his decline. Watt struggled with a groin injury most of the season and a fractured left hand yet still managed to start all 16 games. Even though Watt was battling the injury bug, he still managed to rack up 76 tackles, 17.5 sacks (led the NFL), eight pass deflections, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. He also received his third Defensive Player of the Year award and fourth consecutive Pro Bowl invitation but had to withdraw after having groin surgery for a sports hernia.
During the offseason of the 2016 season, Watt ended up with a herniated disc in his back that required surgery. Somehow Watt was able to make it back for the week one game against the Chicago Bears which seemed like a miracle at first. Watt didn’t produce much other than a sack-and-a-half in week two against the Kansas City Chiefs and re-injured his back in a week three loss in New England. Watt ended up having to have back surgery for the second time and ended the season on injured reserve.
2017 looked promising for the Texans. Houston was able to trade up in the Draft and select Deshaun Watson as their (hopeful) franchise quarterback and J.J. Watt was returning at “full health”. The team struggled early and, for the first time in his career, Watt did not record a single sack. During the Sunday Night Football game against the Chiefs, Watt’s season would come to an end. Watt suffered a tibial plateau fracture which would require surgery and cause him to be the first of many Texans to end the season on injured reserve.
Regardless of how the future pans out, J.J. Watt has cemented his legacy as one of the greatest defensive lineman to play the game. It’s hard to think negative of him anyways considering all that he’s done for the city of Houston. The issue at hand, though, is the future for Watt and the Texans.
There is no question that Watt earned that mega contract deal back in 2014. If Watt was able to continue to play at the level he was at prior to, and during, the first year of that contract, it would be worth every penny. The fact of the matter is Watt has only played in eight games in the last two seasons, which makes it an issue for the Texans cap space. That’s a lot of money to be spending on a player who’s not even on the field.
New general manager Brian Gaines has got his work cut out with this one. On one hand, you have the face of the franchise who all the fans adore but at the same time, you have a team to build; that takes money. With the first pick in the Draft being in the third round, it’s not very likely that Houston can find a Watt caliber defensive end in the Draft (not impossible, but not likely). The market for a potential free agent defensive end doesn’t look promising either. Unless Dallas somehow fails to sign Demarcus Lawrence (who likely gets franchise tagged), there’s no one worth bringing in to try and replace Watt.
A trade also seems very unlikely considering the type of money another team would have to take on with Watt’s contract. His recent injury history also poses a threat to any kind of potential trade interests, unfortunately. If I’m Gaines, the 2018 season is a deciding season in the case for Watt. You basically have no other choice but let this ride out another year. If Watt comes back this year, stays healthy, and continues to play at a high level, then we forget this conversation ever happened. BUT (!) if Watt suffers another injury that costs him a few games, or the season, it’s time for Houston to move on.