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Monson: J.J. Watt can still be an elite force inside as an interior defender

Cincinnati, OH, USA; Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt (99) lines up against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

The Houston Texans recently granted J.J. Watt the release that he requested, putting one of the best players of the last decade on the open market for the very first time. The longtime star pass-rusher is a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and at one point was on course to go down as the best defensive player ever to play the game.

In the four years from 2012-2016, the lowest overall PFF grade Watt compiled was 91.6. That run featured two separate years where he came close to challenging the single-season sack record, a total of 39 batted passes and a 119-pressure season that is still the best we have ever seen at PFF.

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At his best, Watt was one of the most destructive forces that the game has ever seen, but then injuries derailed his career. He played just 374 snaps over the next two seasons in total and has never quite clawed his way back to those peaks in play. The 2020 campaign drew his lowest PFF pass-rushing grade (76.7) since his rookie year, which was more than 15 grading points off his best years.

Now 32 years old and on the other side of the injuries he has dealt with, I think it’s fair to assume that Watt has lost an edge physically over where he was in his prime. But there is a way a new team could offset that blunting of his physical tools — changing his position.

Watt effectively underwent a complete position switch early on in his career, transforming from an interior defensive lineman into a pure edge rusher, albeit one that more often aligns closer to the formation than as a wide-9 speed-rusher.

He played 937 total snaps in 2012, and not one of them came from an edge-rushing alignment. The following season, 20.6% of his snaps came from an edge-rusher spot as the team typically moved him outside to rush the passer on third downs. He played primarily in this role the following season, with 62.9% of his snaps coming lined up outside the tackle on the defensive line. And as of last year, he barely lined up inside at all (15%).

J.J. Watt: SNAPS BY ALIGNMENT, 2011-2020 (regular season only)

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