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A healthy J.J. Watt is still the closest thing the NFL has to Aaron Donald

Denver, CO, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) reacts after a game against the Denver Broncos at Broncos Stadium at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

It’s worth a reminder that J.J. Watt was essentially Aaron Donald before Donald established himself in the NFL. He was the tier-of-his-own, can’t-be-blocked force who had no true counterpart. That reminder doesn’t convey the fact that Watt is still a dominant force, though — a notion that was the impetus for writing this piece. Make no mistake about it. Watt is still that player despite some setbacks.

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Injuries that limited Watt to a shade under 400 snaps across the 2016 and 2017 seasons, along with a torn pectoral muscle that stole half of his 2019 campaign, created a world where some people have forgotten how devastating he can be when healthy. Donald has progressed and pushed past the level of positional dominance that Watt displayed circa 2014 — with no true competition among his peers — but Watt didn’t just disappear to let that happen. There’s a strong argument that he’s still the second-most dominant defensive lineman in the NFL.

Injuries certainly play a leading role in the muted perception of Watt. The adage that the best ability is availability comes into play here, but another real component is that any performance of Watt's that falls short of the high bar he set for himself early in his career is viewed as “not the same.”

Most total pressures from 2011 to 2015 | All defenders
Player Pressures
1. J.J. Watt 415
2. Von Miller 337
3. Michael Bennett 330
4. Cameron Wake 322
5. Ryan Kerrigan 309

Take Watt's numbers across his first five years in the NFL. The above table is not a typo — Watt had nearly 80 more pressures than the next closest defender over that five-year stretch. Von Miller, in second place, is a Hall of Fame player in his own right. Even more impressive is that Watt accomplished the feat as an interior player first, playing 67% of his defensive line snaps lined up over or inside the tackles.

No qualifying defender had a higher pass-rushing grade than Watt from 2012 to 2015 (93.6), and the only player to beat him in run-defense grade was a young interior defender by the name of Damon “Snacks” Harrison, who would go on to own the title of NFL's best run defender for years to come. Simply put, Watt was the best defensive player in football — and it wasn’t particularly close.

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